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Mathematics and Institutional Change

Careers in the Math Sciences

By Freeman Hrabowski

Freeman Hrabowski received the American Educational Research Association's 2013 Distinguished Public Service Award.
Honored by the American Educational Research Association with its 2013 Distinguished Public Service Award, Freeman Hrabowski took the opportunity to reflect on his education and career. He accepted Sue Minkoff’s invitation to contribute to the SIAM News Careers Column with the following excerpts from remarks he made in accepting the award.

It has been 50 years since I participated in the Children’s March in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, including spending five frightening days in jail. I was 12 years old in May 1963, and despite my parents’ concern for my safety—and my own fears—I was determined to take part in the protest. A few nights earlier, sitting in the back of my church doing my math homework, I had heard the visiting clergyman say that a march by children—unprecedented in the Civil Rights Movement—could lead to better schools for Birmingham’s Negro children. Already a math nerd who loved school and learning, I knew instantly—on hearing Dr. King’s remark—that I had to participate.

My life’s work can be divided into two 25-year periods spanning the years from 1963 to 2013. At the end of the first 25-year period, I had completed a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Hampton Institute and graduate degrees in math and educational statistics from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign; I had also served for 10 years as an academic administrator (dean and academic vice president) and professor of mathematics and statistics at two historically black colleges. I have spent the second 25-year period at UMBC (the University of Maryland, Baltimore County), including 21 years as president. Interestingly, UMBC was established the year I went to jail, 1963, and was the first campus in Maryland founded to serve students of all races. (Today, we are a research university with students from 150 countries.) During this past quarter-century, I have focused my research and publications on STEM education, with special emphasis on minority participation and performance.  

I began formulating research questions on this topic as a graduate student. The questions—and my passion for pursuing them—are rooted in my love of mathematics and my academic and personal experiences as an undergraduate and graduate student. I entered Hampton at the age of 15 as an enthusiastic math major. My undergraduate experience there shaped my philosophy of education. My Hampton professors taught me the importance of putting students first, of expecting the most of them, of giving them the support they need to succeed, and of emphasizing leadership and service to others. That philosophy largely governs my approach today as a university president.

My graduate experiences in the early 1970s—not only my coursework and research, but also living with and tutoring undergraduates as a residence hall director, and later directing the Upward Bound program for high school students—also have proven quite useful to me throughout my career. As I worked with high school students and college freshmen, I saw an important connection between reading well and being able to solve word problems.  When I started graduate school, I found that while I was prepared for the academic work in math, I was not prepared to feel so isolated in my classes, usually as the only African American student. While I continued to enjoy math throughout the master’s program, my sense of isolation made it difficult to imagine spending another four or five years in the doctoral program. I had become fascinated by the work of the Educational Testing Service, because I wanted to learn much more about why black children were not performing well on standardized tests. My early thinking on this issue was influenced by my sense of the reason I had always done well on these tests: I had grown up in a house with books, and my mother was an English teacher. 

I left the math program after completing my master’s degree simply because I had no one with whom to talk. My math background proved quite helpful in my doctoral program in higher education, however, as I focused on educational psychology, with emphasis on statistics and on minority student performance in math, science, and engineering. For the past 40 years, I have spent much of my professional career addressing that issue.

For the first decade after graduate school, I worked at two HBCUs with students who had academic deficiencies in math and reading. In 1987, I moved to UMBC, where, in the first year, my research questions, coupled with the poor performance of black students, led to the creation of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program. (In fact, I could not find one predominantly white university that was producing even a handful of black graduates who would go on to get STEM doctorates.) We launched the program with a major gift from Robert Meyerhoff, a Baltimore philanthropist with an interest in African American males, drawing from best practices I observed as an undergraduate and that mathematics professor Uri Treisman identified at the University of California at Berkeley in his work with minority students in mathematics. These practices include setting high expectations, building community among students, emphasizing the importance of faculty involving students in research, and providing financial assistance, strong advising, and mentoring. Today, the program is a national model for preparing students of color and others for STEM research careers (see end of this article for details.)

Since its inception, the program’s approach and results have been the focus of continuous, rigorous, and regularly published process and outcome evaluation studies—combining qualitative and quantitative assessment. Our research team’s efforts have led to two books and numerous book chapters, journal articles, and national awards. The program’s success is borne out by a decade of NSF data (2002–2011) identifying the top-producing baccalaureate-origin institutions of African American doctoral recipients in the natural sciences and engineering. UMBC was the nation’s highest producing predominantly white institution during this period.

Today, 50 years after the Children’s March in Birmingham, the nation looks so different to me. The challenge for those of us who have benefited from high-quality educations is to provide that opportunity to the millions of children for whom such an education is currently out of reach. It is imperative that they develop strong verbal and math skills, and that they acquire the values of hard work and discipline. Whether for helping students become educated, in general, or producing scientists and engineers, the nation needs STEM faculty and researchers focused on these issues—now more than ever.

Freeman A. Hrabowski, president of  the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, since 1992, is a consultant on science and math education to national agencies, universities, and school systems. Named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World by Time magazine (2012) and one of America’s Best Leaders by U.S. News & World Report (2008), he also received TIAA–CREF’s Theodore M. Hesburgh Award for Leadership Excellence (2011), the Carnegie Corporation’s Academic Leadership Award (2011), and the Heinz Award (2012) for his contributions to improving the “Human Condition.” UMBC has been recognized as a model for academic innovation and inclusive excellence by such publications as U.S. News & World Report, which in each of the past four years ranked UMBC the #1 “Up and Coming” university in the nation.

Sue Minkoff ([email protected]) of the University of Texas at Dallas is the editor of the Careers in the Math Sciences column. 

The Meyerhoff Scholars Program

As we developed the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, we came up with and implemented the following components, which collectively have created an environment that continually challenges and supports students, from their pre-freshman summer through graduation and beyond: (1) recruiting top minority students in math and science, including a rigorous selection process; (2) conducting a six-week summer bridge program, including math, science, and humanities coursework, training in analytic problem-solving, group study, and social and cultural events; (3) offering comprehensive merit scholarship support; (4) actively involving faculty in recruiting, teaching, and mentoring the students; (5) emphasizing strong programmatic values, including outstanding academic achievement, study groups, collegiality, and preparation for graduate school; (6) involving the Meyerhoff Scholars in sustained, substantive research experiences during both the academic year and summers; (7) encouraging all students to take advantage of departmental and university tutoring resources in order to optimize their course performance; (8) ensuring the university administration’s active involvement and support; (9) providing academic advising and personal counseling; (10) linking the Meyerhoff Scholars with professional and academic mentors in science and engineering; (11) building a strong sense of community among the students; (12) encouraging the students to engage in service in the larger community; (13) involving the students’ parents and other relatives who can be supportive; and (14) conducting sustained, rigorous evaluation of the program’s components and outcomes.

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