U.S News asked academic experts to identify institutions that are making the most promising and innovative changes in the areas of academics, faculty and student life. The 2012 U.S. News Best Colleges “Up-and-Coming National Universities” ranked the University of Maryland—Baltimore County 1st. UMBC was also ranked 4th (tied with Yale) in the Best Undergraduate Teaching category. There can be little doubt who’s made these rankings possible, and who’s also made UMBC such a nationally known player: Dr. Freeman Hrabowski. Recently interviewed for a “60 Minutes” segment, Dr. Hrabowski has become a prominent voice who’s transcended the world of academia and has elevated the cultural dialogue regarding the future of education. Dr. Hrabowski managed to squeeze in some time with yours truly Alonzo to discuss his keynote address tomorrow for the “Symposium on Teaching Excellence in the Sciences” (Friday, January 20th ) on the Homewood campus .


Q: What excites you about the upcoming symposium on teaching excellence in the math and sciences?


A: I’m excited that Hopkins is giving serious consideration to the fundamental question of how to improve science teaching and learning. Too often with universities around the country---we’ve been doing the same things, the same way for too long a time. Many people are simply satisfied that everything is ok. I had the privilege of being the Chair for the National Academy’s Committee of Under-Representation in Science, and the most stunning finding was that very few Americans who begin with a major in science actually graduate. Only 20% of black and Hispanics who major in science actually graduate. Only 32% of whites who major in science, actually graduate with a major in science. and only 42% of Asian Americans. The larger issue is that even when students are well-prepared they often don’t do well in the first year or two in science. We tend to call the first year of science “weed our courses” because science isn’t for most people. Only 6% of 24 yr. olds have degrees in science and engineering. In Europe it’s about 11%. I’m excited about the seminar because it’s showing that one of America’s leading universities, known chiefly for Medicine, understands that it needs to look at the quality of teaching and learning for science.


Q: Explain to those not familiar with your work with the Meyerhoff Scholars, how the Symposium and the tremendous success of the Scholars are connected?


A)    We’ve been experimenting with different approaches to increase the number of minority students in the math and sciences for over 20 years. Some of the practices have been so effective, we decided to utilize them for all students. We’ve focused on 1) the importance of group work, 2) the use of technology in collaboration, and 3) the emphasis on “active learning” --- these are all strategies we’ve been using with the Meyerhoff Scholars, and now we’re utilizing them with all students. This has led to a redesign of first year courses such as chemistry, mathematics, biology and beyond. We’ve had amazing success and we’ve seen significant achievement in students of all races having success in science. With the Meyerhoffs Scholars, let’s say there’s a scenario where there are 11 of them in a class. 10 get A’s, one gets a D---our thinking is they should all feel bad. And we’ve seen where this is alos THEIR THINKING. This is why we encourage collaboration, this is why we want students to be engaged with their classmates. And what we’ve seen happen is that other Scholars will sit down and say (to the student with the D), “Ok, so what happened?” And in a sense, they become teachers to each other. We want to bring all races, and all groups of students together with the focus being purely on the goal of excellence in science.


Q)   How do you see the process of students’ learning evolving?


A) We know that students in many universities and even starting at K-12 are bored. They’re very passive and sit back expecting the professor, the teacher, to tell them what they need to know. 21st Century learning HAS to involve active engagement, and giving students more responsibility for their own education. Give them all the support they need----but teach them how to ask the right questions, teach them how to become empowered. Have them work among themselves to solve problems, use research methologies----and create theories and approaches that can be tested. The learning paradigm has shifted dramatically from the traditional lecture and taking notes to smaller groups, problem solving, dialogue----and learning how to present, how to probe, discuss, analyze and finally how to evaluate effectively.


Q) What do you see as the immediate challenges in education?


A) Institutions have to find the resources to support faculty in re-thinking how do we go about business. Changing courses, redesigning courses, experimenting, revising courses, look at best practices----all these activities require resources. Many institutions would say, “well we just don’t have the money” I would argue that in the long run institutions save money, when they save students. When students have to drop out, or re-take courses it’s expensive. But to the extent that we can help students succeed THE FIRST TIME, we end up generating revenues that can help continue the drive towards excellence. That would be the challenge. Helping people develop creative ways to re-distribute money in order to invest in more innovative approaches to teaching. Using grant writing, and other methods to partner with companies, national agencies, foundations and institutions-----when we can create this----then we can become even more determined to give faculty and staff the opportunity to reflect on how they do, what they do.


Alonzo LaMont












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