On April 11, 2012, educator Freeman Hrabowski, who is renowned for his successes in teaching science, technology, engineering, and math to minority students in college, spoke at a K–12 conference hosted by The Philanthropy Roundtable. He was introduced by Roundtable president Adam Meyerson. A shortened transcript of the talk he gave is printed below.
Adam Meyerson: Freeman Hrabowski has been president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for the past 20 years. U.S. News and World Report ranks UMBC fourth among national universities, tied with Yale, in the quality of undergraduate teaching. Dr. Hrabowski is co-founder of one of the most exciting philanthropic initiatives in American education today, the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. Thanks to the Meyerhoff Program, more African-American bachelor’s degree recipients go on from UMBC to earn doctorates in science, math, and engineering than from any other predominantly white university in the country. There are 800 alumni in the Meyerhoff Program. This includes 81 Ph.D.s, 25 M.D. Ph.D.s, 92 M.D.s, and 144 advanced degrees in engineering. Another 300 alumni are currently enrolled in graduate and professional programs in science, medicine, and engineering. That’s what we call breakthrough philanthropy.
While the Meyerhoff Program is most known for its success in elevating achievements among minority students, its principles are also applicable for students of any background in any demanding subject. High standards are combined with intensive mentoring, a culture where students teach each other, and multiple job and research opportunities. These principles can be effective in improving performance of all students.
Please join me in welcoming one of America’s great educators, Freeman Hrabowski.
Freeman Hrabowski: Thank you very much.
I come from a campus of nerds. My son calls me the meganerd. I respond, “Yes, but meganerds can pay their bills on time.”
Many of you have read the report Rising Above the Gathering Storm which describes the threat to American competitiveness due to declining student success in math and science. The report said we need many more effective math and science teachers—it calls for 10,000 additional teachers per year. It notes that only about six percent of all the college degrees held by 24-year-olds in our country today are in science and engineering. Among our European allies, the percentage is 11 to 12 percent.
We need to change the culture of our technical institutions to connect students and build community.
I often say to my audiences that if you are between 35 and 70, you’re the most educated people in the world. But if you’re an American 34 or younger, you’re down to something like number seven in the world. We’re not making enough progress, and others are moving ahead.
I was hosting the president of the Korean Institute of Technology on my campus recently, and I was shocked when he said that 70 percent of the degrees in his country go to science and engineering. Their pressing goal is to get more students to do arts and humanities and social sciences. Isn’t that amazing? A difference in culture.
After the Gathering Storm report, I chaired a committee for about three years that looked at that question “What is the impact of America’s changing demographics on our competitiveness?” We found that in America generally, about six percent of 24-year-olds were getting degrees in math and science and engineering. But only between two and three percent of Hispanics and African Americans were earning those degrees. We need to quadruple those percentages.
Many students come to college with an interest in science and engineering. But only 20 percent of minority students who begin a major in science and engineering will actually earn a bachelor’s degree. And only 32 percent of white Americans who begin a major in science and engineering actually graduate with such a degree. In fact, only 42 percent of Asian Americans who begin in science and engineering actually earn that bachelor’s.
The explanation from universities is that this is a K–12 problem. And poor K–12 preparation is indeed a major issue. But here’s a statistic that shows a different aspect of the problem: the better prepared the student, the higher his or her SATs, the larger the number of AP credits, the more selective the university he or she is attending, the greater the probability the student will leave science and engineering within the first year or two.
In shorthand, people who might have become scientists and doctors are instead becoming lawyers. It happens all the time. My campus is almost half science and engineering, so I have to remind my colleagues all the time that lots of students today, even many of those drawn to math and science, are also pulled toward humanities and social sciences because these fields are interesting and marketable and high paying.
I’m trying to avoid making this an either/or choice. Humanities graduates are broader—they speak comfortably, they write well. We need bridges between the techies and the rest of the world. So I try to get my computer science majors to take more literature, more philosophy, and things that prepare them for real life and interesting work. And the very best thing about liberal arts colleges that can be adapted to create more great scientists is the intense nurturing between faculty and students.
We need to change the culture of our technical institutions. On my own campus, we have taken what we’ve learned from working with minority students and used those strategies to help students of all types. We have redesigned courses and looked at ways of connecting students to build community.
There is real urgency to this. How many of you believe there are significantly more brilliant Chinese and Indian children than American children? That’s not a politically incorrect question. It’s a math question.
It’s important for educators and philanthropists and Americans generally to appreciate that, relatively speaking, we are a small country. We may be very powerful, but we only have 320 million people. China has 1.3 billion, India has 1.1 billion.
Put those two countries together and you have 2.4 billion people. The top ten percent of any population will be extraordinary. Ten percent of 2.4 billion is 240 million extraordinarily talented people. Whereas there are only 320 million Americans in total. So they have almost as many geniuses as we have citizens. Think about it.
That’s the simple reason why if you go to any graduate program on technical subjects, the majority of the very best Ph.D. students will be Indian or Chinese. It has everything to do with numbers. Vast numbers.
Add to that the fact that when people come out of poverty for the first time, or when they migrate from developing to wealthy countries, they are hungry for knowledge. There’s a drive that makes them work even harder. We have to work with both types, those with drive to succeed, and those without it.
People who might have become scientists and doctors are instead becoming lawyers.
As a math teacher, I would say that the middle-school years are the most problematic in America. We teach algebra in the middle school years, but most middle school teachers—sixth, seventh, eighth grade—don’t have a math major. To teach algebra well, one needs to know at least a solid calculus course. To teach anything at one level, you need to know the next higher level, and be comfortable with it. Most teachers in the seventh grade have had a course called Math for Elementary School Teachers. It’s a methods course.
The reason independent schools often have much stronger teachers is because they hired a math major instead of someone with the teacher certification.
When I chaired the math and science commission for my state several years ago, the number one secret among teachers in elementary and middle school was a fear of mathematics. If the teacher is afraid of mathematics, imagine what happens with the kids.
Half of America’s students who pursue higher education begin in community colleges. And when you ask community-college educators about the biggest problem they see? It is development of mathematics. We need better teaching five or six years before the student gets to that level—significantly strengthen old-fashioned math and reading. I mean, people can’t read, and they don’t know basic algebra. So they can’t even get to the next level. That’s a fundamental challenge starting with middle school.
So on my campus how do we cope with this underpreparation? When we started the Meyerhoff Program 27 years ago, Bob Meyerhoff was wonderful. As a philanthropist he was interested particularly in black males. We saw that black kids were coming in trying to major in science, and were just not making it. Actually, a lot of the white students were not making it either. The black kids thought we were racist; the white kids just said we were hard. Difference of perception.
We were determined to get to a point where every year we would turn out at least five to ten African Americans who were successful in science. Successful meaning finishing with at least a B average with an interest in going on to grad school. We looked around the country and could not find one institution at that level. Even today, no other institution has even ten African Americans graduating annually into STEM Ph.D. programs.
We started with the notion, “Let’s find the best-prepared minority kids we can from inner-city schools, from rural schools.” People were saying that population will be okay, we should focus instead on the hardest cases. No, even the best students coming out of inner-city schools won’t be okay. They’ll be below average in any larger pool. And what happens is they come to a college, they take their first course and don’t do well, and their path to success is over.
When we think about what we do for minorities, we always think about the bottom group. But it’s really important we look at the ones at the top. It was DuBois who urged a focus on “the talented tenth.” How do we get more smart minority kids who really want to do something, to be the best? We need blacks and Hispanics who become doctors and scientists, who don’t just make it out with a degree, but become the very best. When you have really smart people who can innovate, who can create jobs, who can start companies, that helps the group get better.
When you have really smart people who can innovate, create jobs, start companies, that helps the group get better.
That’s not the way I see America going. Our gifted and talented programs are not the best in the world. They’re not. We need some efforts in that area.
Another thing we found that makes a difference: a lot of the kids that succeed in our programs are from military families. That’s a real advantage. They’re first-generation college but there’s a set of discipline in the family. And they know that the work they’re going to do has meaning. One result is that I’ve got about 900 graduates at the National Security Agency today doing computer science.
In STEM education, one thing builds on another, and you will not become an engineer or scientist if you get C’s in calculus. So we looked at ways of having these best-prepared minority students retake courses, and giving them a stronger background, building a community of mutual help among the students, and getting faculty to take ownership of the students. It’s all about offering supplemental education to build the skills of the kid who got the C. And nothing is more important than the evaluation process at each step.
The final thing we’ve found to be an important way of getting students of all races excited about math and science, and very, very good in carrying it out, is to connect them to real life work. Get them exposed to good jobs in computer science, engineering, research. Place them in actual workplaces where they can see the practical value of the work.
The result? Today on my campus, 40-something percent of our kids go to grad school in scientific fields. The big joke about UMBC is that it stands for “You Must Be Chinese.” We like that. Kids were saying it disparagingly at first. I suggested we should be proud—it means we’re like Berkeley. Some 20 percent of students really are of Chinese descent, and most students perform with similar success.