College President Helps Minorities Excel In Science

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In the 1980's, African-Americans received only 1.1 percent of doctorates awarded in science, engineering, and health-related fields. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) implemented a strategy to improve the number of graduating African-Americans in STEM fields and has received national recognition for their successful efforts. Host Michel Martin talks with UMBC's president Freeman Hrabowski about black students in science.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

As students settle in for another year of school, TELL ME MORE is using the month of September to talk more about issues in education. It's a series of conversations on what's outstanding, what needs improvement and what (unintelligible) an incomplete in the quest to strengthen the nation's schools and offer children from all backgrounds the best education possible.

Today we want to talk about African-American students and science. Back in the 1980s, African-Americans received just over one percent of all the doctorates awarded in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, known in academia as the STEM fields. Now, the numbers have improved over the past decades, but black students continue to earn degrees primarily in the social sciences and in psychology.

The University of Maryland Baltimore County is out to change that. It's forged a strategy to dramatically improve the number of African-Americans in the sciences. Among others, former mathematician Freeman Hrabowski is president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. He helped to launch a program for young, black males in science and engineering back in 1988. Now that program has expanded to include women and people of all races and the school is now one of the national leaders in minority graduates who go on to earn PhDs in the sciences, engineering and math.

And Freeman Hrabowski joins us now from Baltimore. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. FREEMAN HRABOWSKI (President, University of Maryland Baltimore County): Thanks, Michel. Good to be here.

MARTIN: You know, I would be remiss if I didn't ask how an African-American man comes up with a name like Freeman Hrabowski.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HRABOWSKI: My great-great grandfather was actually Polish during slavery in Alabama. I'm from Birmingham originally.

MARTIN: Okay, well, that explains - I really - since my maiden name is a Scottish one, I don't know why.

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Sure.

MARTIN: But I just feel that people want to know.

Mr. HRABOWSKI: I understand.

MARTIN: So you graduated from Hampton University at the age of 19 with a degree in mathematics.

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Yes.

MARTIN: You received your masters and finally your doctorate at the age of 24. Did you always love math? And do you remember feeling odd man out in your field?

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Actually, Michel, I've always gotten goosebumps during math problems. And so on my campus at UMBC, people often called me the mega nerd, which I enjoy because we are a campus with a lot of smart kids. And we enjoy talking about math and science in the context of the liberal arts - the importance of reading, of thinking skills.

And for me it has always been a matter of solving problems. And the question is for the country - how do we help children of all races to enjoy problem solving? Whether it's about reading a story or looking at a story problem.

MARTIN: Well, can we talk about you, though, for a little bit more?

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Sure.

MARTIN: I understand you want to talk about the big picture, but let's talk about you if you don't mind, for just a little bit longer.

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Okay, sure.

MARTIN: When you were growing up, did you see yourself having a life and career in mathematics, in the academy, something like that? Was it something that you envisioned for yourself?

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Well, first of all, I am the son of teachers, and in our home education was always very important. And the number one skill was reading, quite frankly - reading and talking and thinking. And because my mother taught both math and English, she understood the important role of language in math and science also. And so we were constantly looking at words and sentences and in relationship to equations and to word problems.

And as a result, I always found myself wanting to help kids enjoy math as much as I did. And in class, when the teacher would turn her head and I'd see kids beginning to talk to each other, I kept thinking, what could I do to help them to be as interested, as excited about the work as I was.

MARTIN: Did that ever come at a cost for you? I mean there is this phenomenon, and of course people can argue about whether this is a real thing or not a real thing, but you know, many schools have an anti-intellectual cohort who can make life kind of hard for the kids who are nerds. And I did wonder whether the combination of your nerdiness - and you're a nerd and proud - and African-American-ness, and growing up when you did, was that ever a hard road?

Mr. HRABOWSKI: I think the times were different. I grew up in the '50s and '60s in Birmingham. And during the civil rights movement, and participated in the civil rights march with Dr. King and that group. And we were always being told we had to be twice as good because the world was not fair. So you needed to study harder and to work harder and to prepare for a world that would only evaluate us after looking at everyone else.

And so, quite frankly, we worked to be really smart. We wanted to be. And a lot of kids in my neighborhood went on to college and have done great things because we were encouraged by our churches, by our schools, by our neighbors to be smart. It is very different from today, when kids are often ridiculed for being smart.

MARTIN: I do want to talk more about the climate now for students who are interested in these fields.

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But I did want to just ask you one more story about when you were growing up.

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You have told - I have heard you tell the story so, if you dont mind my raising it...

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Sure.

MARTIN: ...when you were sent by your parents to a math enrichment program...

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Right. Yes.

MARTIN: ...in the summer in I believe it was Springfield.

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Springfield, Massachusetts. Yeah. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ... Springfield, Massachusetts, where no one spoke to you the whole summer.

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Right. Exactly.

MARTIN: None of the students spoke to you. None of the teachers would call on you. You were a teenager.

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Right. I was 13 at the time.

MARTIN: Thirteen years old. And I do want to ask how you got through that summer.

Mr. HRABOWSKI: My parents had always told me that I did not have time to be a victim. In Birmingham at the time, as a black child, as a Negro child, I was not allowed to go to the white schools, which had more resources, and so my parents had worked hard to get me to Massachusetts to live with a godmother for summer to see what it would be like to be in class with white kids, and to come to understand the education they were receiving. And the education was certainly far more rigorous and it was great to be in that environment. I started off very excited, raising my hand constantly to answer questions. The teacher would look directly through me. I came to understand Ralph Ellison's "The Invisible Man."

But, as my parents said when I called home, you dont have time to be a victim. Their point was get the knowledge and you'll be okay. And then I kept thinking, well, at least these people will allow me to be in the class. Back in my home town at the time, I couldnt even sit in the class. So there was a knot in my stomach. Yeah, it was an awful experience for a child to be ignored, but I felt very fortunate to be there, getting that education, and I refused to allow others to define who I was.

MARTIN: Now, that those kinds of barriers dont exist, or if they do exist, in a much more subtle way - let's put it that way - that that would not, there are very few places in which that would be tolerated. At least kind of overt discrimination would be tolerated.

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Right.

MARTIN: Why do you think it is that there is still this lag with minority students, particularly black and Latino students, in these fields? Do you think it's a lack of access or is it a lack of interest? For example, I'm reminded of the fact that like during the missions to the moon, that a number of the prominent civil rights leaders at the time would say, well, you know, if we could put a man on the moon, why can't we end poverty here? And it isn't that they dont respect those fields, but that I wonder whether it's just there's some sort of a cultural consensus that these things are not as important or as interesting.

Mr. HRABOWSKI: First of all, it's a great question, Michel. Many children of color are interested in math and science and would like to be an astronaut or a doctor or a scientist, far more than we may realize. Unfortunately, too few excel in those disciplines and that problem of a lack of excellence has everything to do with the academic background of the child and what happens at the home. We can't forget about the important role of the home and the neighborhood and the family in the development of a child.

Now, that doesnt mean there isn't a role for the teacher to play; clearly, the teacher is critical. But if my child comes home and reads in the evening and does math problems and your child comes home and goes out and plays, I dont care how good the teacher is, you've got a challenge of a gap growing there. And so the books that my colleagues and I wrote focus on raising high-achieving African-American children. And what the books essentially found was that for the students in my program and the program we have at UMBC, the Mile High Scholars Program, those students had families, whether it was a single mother or a grandmother, someone who was supporting that child and saying, listen to that teacher, come home and do your homework, and inquiring about the work.

And so we need to be explaining to parents and families that it's not just the teacher's responsibility. The teacher is critical, but families play a role in reinforcing concepts, and quite frankly the importance of education in the home.

MARTIN: To what do you attribute your success at UMBC in getting students to not just arrive on campus but to finish...

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Right.

MARTIN: ...and to maintain their interest in these fields?

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Sure.

MARTIN: Your success in this area is without question, and frankly, it's without peer, particularly for a campus that is diverse. And so to what do you attribute your success here?

Mr. HRABOWSKI: You know, I start with Robert Meyerhoff, the philanthropist, who had an interest in looking at issues involving black males. And we took his idea - he and his wife Jane were very interested in understanding why most of what they saw on TV, if not about sports, was something negative, and he wanted to do something that was positive. And we had this issue of African-Americans not doing well on our predominately white campus, particularly in science and engineering.

We married those ideas and came up with this notion that we wanted to develop a program that would focus on having students not simply making it or surviving in science and engineering but thriving and excelling in science and engineering. And so we set very high standards and expectations for the students we would select and for ourselves.

The number one factor in the success of these students, besides getting students who are willing to have that fire in their belly and a willingness to work hard, and with solid backgrounds, quite frankly, has been the faculty. I mean when you find a campus that has done a great job of producing students who excel in science, you will find a campus that has faculty members, scientists and others, who really care about the students.

And so the other point is that if you show me a campus where students of color are excelling in science, I'll show you a place that's thought about the issue for all students. Because the strategies that help us to improve the performance of black students, of Hispanic students, are the same ones we use to improve the performance of white students and Asian students. It's the group work, it's collaboration, it's connecting with faculty, it's hands-on experiences, it's creating a culture in which its great to be smart.

MARTIN: But what message are you sending to faculty and to the institutions that achieve these results that aren't being achieved in other places? Or is this a matter of selection? Is this the kids who find their way to you are the kids who are going to succeed in these fields anyway?

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Well, that's a great question. Weve done a number of studies that have shown that students with exactly these backgrounds, who were invited to be in the Mile High Program, and have gone to a number of institutions around the country, are statistically less apt to excel in science. In fact, usually students who start off in science in most institutions either have difficulty or lose interest, and this is one of the reasons they dont succeed. Large numbers of students of color and Americans in general begin in science and engineering, planning to be doctors or engineers or researchers and change their majors. So it's an American problem. The good news is that we have been able to show that the students whose backgrounds are just like ours have had challenges at other places that weve been able to figure out how to handle and to address and to make sure those students remain in science.

MARTIN: And why does this matter?

Mr. HRABOWSKI: It matters because we're in a nation that is competing globally with countries that are producing larger and larger numbers of scientists and engineers and researchers. Whether talking about issues involving energy and the environment or about health care or about defense and intelligence, we need Americans of all races, men and women, who are entering these disciplines and who can help our country.

MARTIN: Again, I still want to ask, what is it you think makes the difference? Is it letting these students know that they can do it? Is it a peer group of people who are doing it? What do you think is the critical ingredient and can that be replicated somewhere else?

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Michel, you'd make a great professor, because I would have to say all of the above. First of all, you have to start with students who have a certain academic background. So we have looked very carefully, with great specificity, at the level of education of students who can succeed at UMBC. Remember, we have students from 150 countries and the challenge is that the students who have been educated in other countries and whose parents, quite frankly, have brought them here in many cases, are very hungry for the knowledge. I mean whether they are from Nigeria or from Russia or from China, they are very hungry for the knowledge and focused.

American students in general are not accustomed to being hard workers in high school, with the exception of the very strongest high schools. I mean the fact is very few American high school students are accustomed to studying three or four hours per night. And yet when you get to college, this is what's expected and what youre going to have to do in science and engineering.

And so what we have to do is - and what we work to do - is to create a climate in which, as you said, we expect students to work very, very hard. We expect them to work with each other. We have a chemistry discovery center that focuses on group work. We're doing that now in the other math and physics and other areas so that students dont see themselves as being in a cutthroat environment but rather one where they support each other from all races.

We also look carefully at how faculty are teaching these students, and faculty has spent a lot of time in that first couple of years figuring out how to be as clear in the teaching of concepts and how to use the technology and these other techniques to have more students succeeding, and then to look to see when we are doing well and when we are not. So the assumption is, if a lot of students are not doing well, we need to rethink how we're doing things rather than simply saying this is the way it is.

The fact is that in America we are accustomed to half or more of the students who start in these areas not making it. We have determined that we want students who want to be in these disciplines to succeed.

MARTIN: Finally, and I know this is a busy time of year for you, beginning of the school year.

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Sure. Right.

MARTIN: But you told Time magazine, which named you as one of its top 10 college presidents, and congratulations on that...

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Thank you.

MARTIN: You told them that now, after all your work in making UMBC a competitive science, engineering and medicine school, a school that's known for its work in those fields, that you want to make it competitive across the all disciplines...

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Yes.

MARTIN: ...like the arts and humanities. Why, and what's your strategy for that?

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Well, the - its interesting. The media will tend to focus on science and engineering because they're tied to economic development. However, we have very strong faculty in theater and music and the humanities, broadly. In the social sciences weve had great opportunities to go to the Kennedy Center. Samuel Beckett is our muse. We do really interesting Beckett work, for example - our programs in communications and in women studies.

What's interesting is that my students go on to the best graduate and professional schools in the country. I have students this year who went to the Harvard Law School, the Kennedy School, the Harvard Medical School. So whether talking about the sciences or the social sciences, more than 45 percent of our students go immediately to graduate school, and that's across disciplines. But that's a hard message to get out.

I mean the fact that US News just named us, for the second year in a row, the number one up and coming university in the country has everything to do with innovation across disciplines. Weve been redesigning programs and pulling groups together, building community among students.

Why is it important? It's important because we need broadly educated people in our society. We need scientists who understand literature and who can understand the ethical issues of what they're doing. We need people in the arts and humanities who can understand the impact of technology on society, and weve been working to infuse technology throughout the curriculum. But weve also at the same time been working to make sure students can read and write and think critically. And so we talk about the value of the liberal arts. People who are going to be leaders need to be broadly educated.

MARTIN: Freeman Hrabowski is president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, among other distinctions. The school ranks among the nation's top institutions in graduating students of color in medicine, engineering and the sciences, the so-called STEM fields. And he joined us from Baltimore.

President Hrabowski, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Thank you, Michel. It was fun.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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