2013 William D. Carey Lecture: UMBC President Urges National Effort to Keep More Undergraduates in Science and Engineering

A picture of Freeman Hrabowski

Freeman Hrabowski

America urgently needs a national, research-based effort to empower all undergraduates and help more of them, particularly underrepresented minorities, graduate with science and engineering degrees, said Freeman Hrabowski, III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) during the 2013 William D. Carey lecture.

Hrabowski addressed the 38th Annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy on 2 May 2013—fifty years to the day after he had participated in the historic Birmingham Children’s March, which was inspired by the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I wanted a better education,” Hrabowski said of his participation in that 1963 event. “All children really do want to be well-educated.”

Recently named to chair the U.S. President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans, Hrabowski pointed out that “children of color” currently represent about 40 percent of all U.S. youngsters. Yet, underrepresented minorities received just 17.8 percent of all bachelor’s degrees and 5.4 percent of doctoral degrees awarded by U.S. institutions in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields in 2007.

 

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Freeman Hrabowski III, now president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was the second-to-last child in this photo of the 2 May 1963 Birmingham Children’s March—fifty years before he delivered the 2013 William D. Carey lecture.
[Courtesy of Freeman Hrabowski]

Too many students of all backgrounds who begin college planning to major in a STEM discipline quit or change fields, said Hrabowski, who chaired the National Academies’ committee that produced the 2011 report, Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads.

 

In fact, he said, the higher a student’s Scholastic Aptitude Test scores, and the more Advanced Placement credits she received in high school, the more likely she is to leave an undergraduate science and engineering program without completing it.

Hrabowski explained this seemingly illogical truth this way: Students who are accustomed to getting high grades in science and mathematics in high school may be unprepared for the academic rigor of university-level courses, so when they receive a C in freshman chemistry, they decide they no longer like chemistry. “Even students who thought they were good in science get to college and can’t do well,” he said.

“The only way to remain competitive as a nation is by increasing substantially the number of minorities—men and women—who succeed in science,” Hrabowski said, adding that colleges and universities must stop equating “prestige” with the number of students who fail. “First-year science courses are considered ‘weed-out’ time,” he said. “We tend to accept the fact that most of those students will not make it. We need to change that mindset.”

Between 2002 and 2011, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) produced the largest number of African-American doctoral degree holders in the natural sciences and engineering, Hrabowski noted, citing National Science Foundation (NSF) data. Howard University, for example, granted about 110 such doctoral degrees. Nationwide during the NSF study period, the ten leading institutions for producing such bachelor’s degree recipients were all HBCUs except UMBC, which has a predominantly white student population. Looking at another measure of success—the yield, based on the proportion of African American bachelor’s degree recipients who go on to complete science and engineering PhDs—a number of predominantly white institutions, especially the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, UMBC and Princeton, have made excellent progress, NSF research shows.

 

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Between 2002 and 2011, historically black colleges and universities produced the largest number of African-American doctoral degree holders in the natural sciences and engineering. Looking at another measure of success—the proportion of African American bachelor’s degree recipients who go on to complete science and engineering PhDs—a number of predominantly white institutions, especially the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, UMBC and Princeton, have made excellent progress. [Courtesy of Freeman Hrabowski/NSF]

But in terms of sheer numbers, most of the nation’s African-American scientists and engineers are still graduating from predominantly white schools, simply because there are far fewer historically black institutions, Hrabowski said. Educators therefore should strive to “help students in general,” not just underrepresented minorities, he said. “If the undergraduate climate has been carefully thought out, all students will do better.”

 

Hrabowski urged an intensive, coordinated national approach to evaluate minority participation and success in STEM programs, and to help schools learn which strategies work best. “We as a nation have not brought the level of rigor of analysis to this problem that we have brought to other problems of national interest,” he said.

Based on his own experiences, he said that children must achieve reading readiness and basic mathematical proficiency before the fourth grade. At the middle-school level, he said, too many children are still receiving inferior instruction in mathematics. “Too many middle-school teachers are teaching algebra without knowing pre-calculus,” he said.

At the college level, students need financial, academic and social support in order to succeed. “You cannot wait tables 20 hours per week and do well in mathematics and science,” he said.

Why does UMBC lead the nation’s predominantly white institutions in granting science and engineering degrees to minority students?

The UMBC culture encourages students to become involved in research at an early stage so that they are empowered to learn science and mathematics by solving real-world problems. A summer bridge program, a component of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, is also available to prepare incoming students for the rigor of college-level work. Further, many courses have been redesigned to get away from the traditional lecture format, Hrabowski said. He cited “a sense of community,” peer-tutoring and “getting to know the student’s family challenges” as additional keys to helping them succeed in STEM degree programs. (In a recent policy paper, Hrabowski offered additional details on UMBC’s strategies for increasing STEM achievement in higher education.)

AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner, executive publisher of the journal Science, said he has seen and admired Hrabowski’s intensely personal approach to mentoring and inspiring students. “Go visit him and walk with him on the campus of UMBC,” Leshner said. “Some random student walks down the path and [Hrabowski] says, `How’s your mother doing?’”

Leshner said that Hrabowski epitomizes the ideals set forth by the late William D. Carey, who was “extremely influential in shaping American science policy.” Carey served as AAAS Executive Officer and then publisher of Science for 12 years (1975-1987). Earlier, he had worked as Vice President of Arthur D. Little, Inc., in charge of public affairs, and as Assistant Director of what was then called the U.S. Bureau of the Budget (now the Office of Management and Budget). At AAAS, Leshner said, “He spent years building a science policy framework…trying to leverage science to serve society.”