Speaking at the Baltimore Washington Corridor Chamber (BWCC)’s annual meeting in April, University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) President Freeman Hrabowski III presented an overview of policies and programs he believes are necessary to galvanize the American education system for the future.
In his speech, titled “America’s Economic Future at the Crossroads: Education, Innovation and Leadership,” he also challenged elected officials, businesspeople and education administrators to find ways to collaborate on improving the state’s economic outlook.
“We, as a state, need to highlight the strengths of this Corridor, both [education] and the emphasis on entrepreneurship that we are developing, and understand what else we need to do to … go to the next level,” Hrabowski said. “We need to highlight how we’re making progress, what we need to do and, most important, that we believe we can make a big difference.”
That belief is evident on the UMBC campus, said William “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, who introduced Hrabowski and credited him with developing UMBC into an academic powerhouse.
“U.S. News and World Report recently ranked UMBC as the nation’s No. 1 Up-and-Coming University for the third straight time,” Kirwan said. “They were ranked No. 4 in the nation for their ability to get undergraduates involved in research.”
Hrabowski has also been profiled and interviewed in a feature story that aired on a recent installment of the CBS News magazine “60 Minutes” and was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in April.
One of the primary problems facing the American education system remains the achievement gap, Hrabowski said, citing claims that black and Hispanic students fall roughly four years behind middle class whites by the time they reach 12th grade — provided they reach the 12th grade.
The consequences are wide-reaching, he said, as evidenced by an assertion by the director of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Computer and Network Systems that the nation’s underproductivity problems in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) areas are “inextricably linked” to minority underrepresentation in those fields.
“One of the things NSA is doing in a very enlightened way is to say, ‘Help us attract and educate kids from the underrepresented groups, because we need their perspective and we need that to work out,’” Hrabowski said.
Equally important, he added, is the need to recruit more females in these disciplines.
“Fewer than 20% of the people coming out of computer science now are women,” he said. “[W]e need to think about ways of pulling children of all types, children of color, girls and women into these science and technology areas and helping more students in general get an education.”
Statistically speaking, only 20% of black students who start college with a major in science or engineering will graduate with a degree in that field.
More shocking, Hrabowski said, is the fact that only 32% of whites who start with a science or technology major will graduate with a similar degree. “The No.1 reason is they didn’t do well in the first year or two.”
Meanwhile, demand for these majors is increasing in a society whose environmental, energy, defense and health care needs are increasingly driven by technology and science.
The argument that some people just aren’t cut out for these subjects doesn’t sit well with Hrabowski. “Many more people can do it — if we expect them to do it,” he said. “This is going to be the future.”
More administrators are beginning to embrace course redesign, changing the way education is delivered, as a large part of the solution.
“Some of us have come to understand it’s not enough to say it’s the student’s fault if the student doesn’t do well,” Hrabowski said.
For UMBC’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, that has meant a shift away from passive lectures in favor of group study, collaboration and the inclusion of current examples taken directly from biotechnology companies on campus. The result has been an increase in student success.
“It worked so well in chemistry we’re bringing in physics and math,” Hrabowski said. “We’re not giving students the theories; we’re using entrepreneurship and … pushing them to discover the theories using real life problems.”
Looking at Maryland
Hrabowski held up UMBC’s Choice Program as an example of what can be done to help close the nation’s achievement gap.
Designed to give structure to young first offenders, the program was founded in 1989 and currently supervises 500 children.
“If you give them structure and expect the most, they’ll rise to the occasion,” Hrabowski said. “Since 1989, we have never had a major incident on campus.”
Likewise, he played up the need for structure in leveraging the strengths of Maryland’s national agencies, companies and brainpower to address national needs. “The question becomes, how does [Maryland] show the rest of America how to close the achievement gap, work on economic development and work across sectors,” Hrabowski said. “I think we’ve got the chance to do it right here.”
He challenged companies such as Constellation Energy and SAIC to focus on multi-level partnerships with community colleges, universities and school systems. Pushing kids to do more, Hrabowski argued, would do much to create a pipeline of students interested in working for the prestigious companies and national agencies that need them.