Quiet revolution in teaching science is earning UMBC extra credit

March 20, 2012

The academic pedigree of the University of Maryland Baltimore County doesn’t leap off the page.

At Yale University, the graduation rate is 96 percent. At UMBC, it is 68 percent. Dartmouth College has produced 73 Rhodes scholars; UMBC, none. The state’s flagship public university is in College Park, not Catonsville.

But a closer look at UMBC reveals an institution that has built a reputation for teaching to rival the higher-education elite. In recent years, UMBC has been alternately hailed or dissected by Time magazine, “60 Minutes” and various college rankers. Its president, Freeman Hrabowski III, has visited the White House, dined with Queen Elizabeth II and co-chaired a panel on higher-education excellence with the president of Harvard University.

UMBC is an insider’s university, a place professors send their children, an academic brand as familiar to presidents and provosts as it is unfamiliar to the general public.

But after years of acclaim, that may finally be changing.


UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III has visited the White House and co-chaired a panel on higher-education with the president of Harvard. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

Each year, U.S. News & World Report asks college leaders to pick the top institutions for undergraduate teaching. Dartmouth and Princeton topped the list this year, along with some Ivy League peers and elite public schools such as the College of William and Mary. All in all, it was an utterly predictable exercise — save for UMBC, tied with Yale at fourth place.

The school is known for African American scholarship in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Many higher-education leaders say no institution does a better job of seeding black students into the sciences than UMBC and that no one knows how to do it better than Hrabowski. To those observers, UMBC and its 20-year president are indistinguishable.

“He has looked so systematically at what attracts students to science education, what inspires them to stay in it and what support they need to succeed in it,” said Drew Faust, Harvard’s president.

UMBC faculty are leading a quiet revolution in science education.

Introductory chemistry classes have moved from passive lecture halls to a “chemistry discovery center.” Students work in four-person teams with a whiteboard, and each is assigned a role: manager, researcher, scribe or blogger. The concept is comparatively simple, based on a group learning style borrowed from elementary schools. But for colleges, it is new.

In six years, the chemistry failure rate has gone from 30 percent to 15 percent. And the concept has spread to introductory biology, now taught in a cavernous hall called the “active science teaching and learning environment.” Students sit around tables and collaborate on problems while the teacher roams the room wearing a wireless mic, a pedagogical master of ceremonies.

“Sodium, sodium, sodium, sodium,” said the instructor, Sarah Leupen, looping around the tables one recent day. “I’m loving the sodium, people. You don’t need to memorize this formula, but you need to be friends.”

At UMBC, the overall 68 percent graduation rate seems modest. But black and Hispanic students tend to graduate at about the same rate as whites, a feat almost unknown in higher education. A National Science Foundation report reveals that 48 African Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees from UMBC went on to earn doctorates in science and engineering from 2005 to 2009, the largest number from any college without a black student majority. Sixteen percent of UMBC students are African American.

“You don’t have to be rich to be smart,” said Hrabowski, who tends to smile and draw out his words when reciting educational aphorisms. “And that’s a hard thing to say, but it’s true.”

UMBC is the nation’s top up-and-comer university, according to U.S. News. And its held that honor for three years, trailed by George Mason University in Virginia and Clemson and Tulane universities.

Currency, in higher education, is relatively fixed: Academic stature is acquired over generations. UMBC’s ascent has been comparatively brisk. When Hrabowski arrived in 1987 as vice provost, the university was a minimally selective commuter school — fewer than half of its freshmen lived on campus — with less than $10 million in annual research funding. Today, the campus is primarily residential and research funding tops $80 million.

Hrabowski is one of the longest-serving college presidents, frequently listed among the most influential leaders in academia. An African American mathematician, Hrabowski also possesses a suitably inspirational back story: In 1963, at age 12, he was arrested during the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, Ala., by Public Safety Commissioner “Bull” Connor and jailed for five days.

Where other public university leaders celebrate football and March Madness, Hrabowski reveres postdoctoral research and chess masters.

“His goal was to establish minorities in the STEM areas as central figures on campus, like athletes at other universities,” said Howard University President Sidney Ribeau, who studied with Hrabowski years ago at the University of Illinois.

Central to the UMBC narrative is the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, launched in 1988 as a pipeline for promising black males to complete math or science degrees. The university selected students with high SAT scores and good grades, paid their way and pampered them with academic support. In return, students pledged to maintain a B average.

Professors soon realized that black males weren’t the only ones struggling. Nationally, fewer than half of all students who enter college planning to study science or math complete degrees in those fields. That prompted the expansion of the program to others and a course redesign, which has now spread beyond hard science to psychology and English composition.

UMBC, founded in 1966, is a relative upstart among major research universities. In contrast to much older public flagships in Charlottesville and College Park, the Catonsville school is not even a half-century old. For those who work there, it is a rare opportunity to shape the trajectory of a major university.

“The UMBC administration and faculty have been able to write the script,” said Lloyd Minor, provost of Johns Hopkins University.

Hrabowski’s predecessor as president, Michael Hooker, established a niche for UMBC in research and technology and raised the caliber of faculty and students. He and Hrabowski recruited top researchers but kept graduate enrollment small so that undergraduates would have a hand in the research. UMBC has 10,500 undergraduates and 2,500 graduates, a balance not unlike that at Dartmouth and Princeton University.

UMBC has fewer than 100 undergraduate and graduate programs, partly because state regulations forbid duplicating offerings at five other public colleges in greater Baltimore. As a result, the university has stressed quality over quantity. More than half of the school’s 24 doctoral programs are nationally ranked.

Hrabowski, protective of the school’s intellectual image, has famously rejected fielding a football team. Instead, UMBC has won several national championships in chess. And school cheerleaders perform at the tournaments.

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