Freeman Hrabowski wins the 2012 Heinz Award for Human Condition

We’ve all seen the numbers. The United States is ranked 25th in math and 17th in science out of 31 countries. Instead of giving up, some U.S. educators have taken that low ranking as a challenge to find new ways to help their students succeed.


University of Maryland Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski III. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

The Heinz Awards are given in honor of the late former senator John Heinz (R-Pa.) to individuals who develop innovative programs in areas that were important to Heinz, including public policy and arts and humanities.

With Hrabowski at the helm, UMBC has doubled the amount of students majoring in science, engineering and math — that’s much higher than the overall increase in students. Meanwhile, between 2002 and 2006, the most recent years that data are available, 24 black bachelor’s degree recipients at UMBC went on to earn a PhDs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. That’s the most recipients from any other predominantly white institution in the country.

“It is a wonderful way to recognize the work of my colleagues. I am honored to be representing them, but this award speaks volumes about what’s happening at UMBC,” Hrabowski said in an interview. The foundation offered the award to four others this year.

“The faculty and staff work together to ensure that students of all races excel academically, in science and engineering in addition to humanities and social sciences,” he added.

Helping students excel in these areas has been a mission of Hrabowski’s career.

While earning a master’s degree in mathematics at the University of Illinois, Hrabowski discovered his interest in helping students exceed in math and science courses. He taught graduate courses in math and statistics, directed an Upward Bound program for high school students and tutored undergraduate students in mathematics.

“I began to understand the challenges that first-generation college students and students of color have in college. I wanted to find ways for colleges and universities to become involved with public schools to help young people prepare for college,” said Hrabowski, 62, who went on to receive his doctorate in higher education administration and statistics from Illinois.

That was almost 40 years ago. Today, Hrabowski has made significant strides in helping students shine in science and math programs.

He co-founded the Meyerhoff Scholars Program with philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff to boost diversity among UMBC students in the science, technology, engineering and medical fields. According to its Web site, the program has helped about 1,100 students — 800 alumni and 300 currently enrolled students — by building “a tightly knit learning community” in which the “students continually inspire one another to do more and better.”

In July, President Obama named Hrabowski chair of the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans. Also this year, Hrabowski was listed as one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.

But Hrabowski said the accolades aren’t the most rewarding part of his work. He said he most enjoys seeing faculty members and students work toward a common goal: excellence.

“I enjoy working with my colleagues to support students from around the world in becoming well-educated across disciplines. There is something exciting about being in an environment in which it’s really cool to be smart. It is exciting to work with students thinking about issues of the day, from closing the achievement gap to finding a cure for cancer,” Hrabowski said.

Even more telling are his plans for the Heinz Award prize money.

“I’m honored to be donating the $250,000 prize to the university,” said Hrabowski, who has already donated his Carnegie Award prize money — half a million dollars — to the school. The money is going to UMBC’s Academic Innovation Fund, which aims to redesign courses and strengthen the university.

“We’ve become a model for academic innovation and inclusive excellence,” Hrabowski said.

And he plans to keep it that way.

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