Hrabowski: US competitiveness at risk without education innovation

Freeman A. Hrabowski lectures about the importance of science and math education in America, particularly for minority students, Friday morning in the Amphitheater. Photo by Eric Shea.

Laurence Léveillé | Staff Writer

Every generation has been more educated than the one before it since the Higher Education Act of 1965. But that progress is not continuing today.

Freeman Hrabowski, president of University of Maryland, Baltimore County, discussed the issues facing science and engineering education in the United States during Friday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater as the last speaker of Week Three, themed “Inspire. Commit. Act.”

The U.S. faces today a deficiency in students graduating from universities and colleges with a degree in science or engineering. Six percent of Americans who hold bachelor’s degrees have them in those subjects, compared with higher percentages in other countries, Hrabowski said.

As a result, the country faces the challenge to remain competitive with other countries. If the number of women, minorities and people with disabilities going into technology-related fields does not increase, the country will not be able to compete, he said.

Most Americans have the mindset that there are people meant to do math and others who are not. The assumption sets the U.S. apart from other countries that have people more interested in math and science fields.

But changing that mindset could help raise children’s interest in the subjects. Hrabowski gave a message to parents about their attitudes toward math.

“Even if you did not like math in high school, you can show interest and say, ‘I’m willing to learn,’ rather than saying, ‘This is just not what I can do,’” he said.

An issue teachers often face is how to explain concepts clearly, Hrabowski said. The more a teacher understands the material, the more easily he or she can explain a concept.

The main problem in middle-school math is that children do not read well. Hrabowski said math includes language skills, because problems are expressed in words.

“If you ask the typical American child about a problem that says 5x+5=15, the kid can usually do that,” he said, “but if you give him or her a word problem, they won’t like it.”

The solution, he said, is to help language arts teachers and math and science teachers collaborate to help students understand the connection between language and math problems.

Regardless of how high-school students perform in classes, on the SAT and what universities or colleges they attend, those who choose to study a subject such as engineering will end up changing their majors within the first two years. Only one-third of students studying chemistry, biology or physics will graduate in those areas, Hrabowski said.

One solution to the problem is to continue encouraging students to learn those subjects in K-12, but universities and colleges must also rethink their approaches.

“We in colleges and universities must rethink the culture of science and engineering teaching and learning in the first two years,” he said.

When UMBC had to change its approach, Hra­bowski analyzed data to look at the backgrounds of the students. He said students in the same classroom who come from suburban schools cannot be expected to perform at the same level as other students in the classroom.

“And most important, we had to decide who could succeed and how to experiment, how to use innovation to rethink our approach,” he said.

The university has redesigned courses to focus on group work, collaboration, the use of analytics and understanding trends, Hrabowski said.

For academic innovation, he said, there are two factors to consider.

People should be able to look into a mirror and be honest with themselves about what is good with a situation, about what needs to change and about the relationship between the present and the future. Encouraging people to ask good questions is another factor. Innovation needs critical thinkers who can ask questions others have not thought about and who are willing to try approaches that may not work, Hrabowski said.

Hrabowski’s goal at UMBC is to create an environment in which faculty members care about their students and help them become more engaged in their work so they can excel in the science and math fields.

“You don’t have to be rich in America to be brilliant,” he said. “For us, the American ideal has everything to do with the best thinkers and those who care about others, because a part of changing the culture was getting us involved with the sticky issues of the day.”

Photo by Eric Shea.


Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Sherra Babcock I’m going to start, because you talked about and you have been quoted about looking for kids with fire in the belly and motivation. How do you do that in the college admissions process?
A:But you start well before the college admissions process. I’m convinced, and I say this to college presidents, we in universities must become much more involved in the communities around us and in working to inspire teachers, children and families, so they know what they need to do to get to a certain level. For us, for example, we supervise 500 children, who are first time offenders, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And we’ve been doing it for 27 years. And the reason the state continues to fund it is that we have substantive evaluation that shows what a difference it makes in saving money but also in saving children. Now those kids will never come to you and be saved. These are children who are truly at the bottom of advantage in our country, yet we can work to get them to read, to get them to aspire to get into a two-year institution. And for them that is best. One of the points about admissions policies that I feel is really important is who are the best to succeed at an institution. How do we make sure the students that we accept have the background to succeed? And how do we increase the pool of those? So, there are a lot of grants. We have a lot of grants from the National Science Foundation working with poor kids and others to get them ready. And there is no doubt in my mind that fire in the belly is at the top of my list. I want children who are excited about learning. And I want to help kids become more excited about learning. We need our kids of all ages to want to be smart, to love ideas, to enjoy solving problems. Give me a hand for wanting kids to want to be smart.
Q: My biggest obstacle in getting high-school students to succeed in math is their belief that math is a born talent instead of a skill that requires practice and hard work. Too many students prefer to socialize or text instead of doing homework. How do we change that pervasive mindset?
A: She or he knows exactly what she or he is talking about. I would say several things. One of my points, if you were listening to me, is that we tend to think that. That people are either born to do math or they were not. But it’s like music or anything else, of course there are people with more talent than others. Of course there are. I’ve been taking piano lessons all my life. People say, “Are you good?” I say, “No, but I know who is good.” I’m able to enjoy myself the music. And it’s classical music. But I have students who are really good because of their gifts. But that doesn’t mean I can’t play. There are levels of talent. I’m saying she’s right. We can teach anyone to, quite frankly, understand mathematical concepts. That’s why the new common course standards talk about statistics as very important for students as ever before. Just to give you one example of how we have to change the way we do it — many of you said you’re good in math. How many of you who are not math teachers or engineers, would be willing to stand now and tell me what a function is? That’s your assignment today, to all discuss with each other. All of you would say is something about “f of x.” Everybody remembers “f of x” equals something. But to explain it to people — what is a function? That is your assignment today. And the other part about the value, she was absolutely right. We have to work with our family to make them understand. And nothing takes the place of hard work. I don’t care how gifted a child is or how bright anyone is naturally. Anyone who really excels, you know this, works hard. We have to think about that value of hard work. The reason my campus has been so successful is because we have students from 150 countries or their parents are from that country. And so we have both international and domestic diversity. But whether the child is from China, or Russia, or Nigeria or the islands, a majority of those kids are hungry for the knowledge. If you think about many of the best people intellectually, the top people in our country — from the humanities to the science — they often grew up in New York, their parents were from a European country, their parents didn’t speak English well. They didn’t have a lot of money, but they had that value for hard work. So they went to the poor man’s Harvard — city college. And they became the very best. They became Nobel laureates. And the challenge we face is to get that hunger back to help parents understand that the only way your children are going to succeed is to get excited about hard work. Parents have to show — parents have the responsibility to show two things: respect for those teachers, No. 1; and then respect for learning itself. It’s very important.
Q: I’m going to follow that with a question from a high-school teacher of AP chemistry. Students come back to say that the passion communicated in that class is not communicated on college campuses. What do you do about helping your faculty communicate their passion?
A: I want to look at the chemistry discovery center and our course redesign that is now going across disciplines. We’ve got a wonderful Carnegie grant recently. And we’re going to be using this course redesign notion — not only in science by the way — but in the art, humanities and social sciences. Two things. No. 1, too often, institutions of many types will assign first-year work to grad students — and while we want to prepare grad students — or we assign it to the faculty that’s not the most well-respected for research. And I am arguing that we worked hard to say that we want some of our best faculty, who are the big RO1, NIH grants, who are with companies, quite frankly, to get involved with those freshmen and pull them into the work by the passion, by the excitement. No. 2: I think that it is very important that parents who are sending their children to all types of institutions ask the hard questions. For example, what is the probability that a student who comes to your campus that majors in chemistry actually will graduate in chemistry? What is the probability that the kid will graduate in chemistry with above a 3.0? It’s not enough to talk about the prestige of an institution. The question is, how much attention is being given to undergraduates to make sure they succeed? And finally, I would argue that the most enlightened places are understanding that they can be much better than they are. A part of innovation is saying that we may be doing well but we can do better.
Q: Lot of questions about assessment, especially K–12 — is it helping? Because it sounds like it might be in science and math, where it might not be in other areas.
A: I’m a believer in a something that Jim Collins said in one of those books, the “tyranny of the or” versus the “genius of the and.” We often will say we can either be a research university or liberal arts college. Or that we’re concerned about research or teaching. Our approach was, let’s talk about the genius of the “and.” How do we pull students into the research early, so they can do more than watch test tubes? How do we get students involved in publishing, not just in science, though? How do we get them involved in the humanities, in working in a range of places beyond science and engineering, to allow them to see how they’re studying will make a difference? Now, how do you access all that? At the high-school level, we have to have assessment, because the variation in grading is amazingly wide and broad. In many cases, we don’t know what an A or B can mean. You can have a student getting all As and having very low test scores, and many people say that the test scores don’t count. And I’ll get parents of valedictorians from the inner city, and they’ll say you’re a black president of a predominantly white place, why won’t you let my black child enter in, because she worked very hard and has all As, but she has very low test scores, and she wants to be a doctor. First question I’ll ask is do you like science. And she’ll say no, I like people. OK, I have a problem. Start there. This is the way I’ll explain it. I often will say, let us work together and get her to a smaller place, maybe to a junior college to build a background. Because if she comes here now, against my students, where a large number have perfect math SATs without SAT prep, she will not make it, No. 1. No. 2, this is the way I have to explain standardized tests. You’re lying there on the operating table, the doctor comes in and says, “I like people. I can’t pass that test, but I like people.” Are you going to let him cut on you? Give me a hand for that. That’s real. Now, I will argue that passing a test does not necessarily make someone a good doctor. But certifying one knows the work is not sufficient, but it is necessary. And what we have to do is balance. I understand what some teachers are saying. We need the time to make sure that the students are learning to think. I think the testing itself can become richer and broader, to make for more critical thinking. I don’t disagree with that all. But what I will tell you, having written questions for math SATs for years, when people say, “Oh, they’re teaching to the test.” No, as long as you’re teaching people how to solve different types of problems, then you’re not giving the exact problems on the test. Students have to be able to read and answer questions. In lower-income communities and in minority communities, people are often saying, “Oh, the test is biased.” I think advantaged people usually have more opportunities for test preparation. We need to give students as much of a chance to learn how to take those tests. But at the core of math SAT questions are reading skills. They’re word problems.
Q: Pressure on parents to start preparing their students for the right private school is earlier and earlier, to the point the children are studying for entrance exams at younger ages. What is the right balance for being a kid, say 10 years old, and studying and preparing for future success?
A: You saw that study the other day that a lot of kids say that school isn’t all that hard. Our vision for America must be that our public schools are so good that every family would like to send their kids to a public school. I want for all kids a certain level of standards. We can learn from the best of independent schools, some things that are rigid. But here’s what I want you to think about. I am convinced that the challenge is not about the amount of work, because I do think a child can learn far more than we think. I think it’s the approach we take, the love we give and the environment of curiosity — that you can have a child more encouraged about reading than watching TV any day. It’s the approach of love that makes all the difference in the world. I’m not wanting a child to feel such pressure that a child becomes warped. But the most important quality in preparing a student is a sense of self. The reason why I get so deeply touched as I look around is because of my late parents. How they spent their entire lives, saying to me, “Freeman, you must believe in yourself. You must love learning, itself.” And the more you’re able to read, and think and analyze, the better you’ll feel about yourself. And I think families can do both things. It is the genius of the “and,” of having high standards for our children while making sure we love them in such a way that they’re not under so much pressure that their personalities become warped. We don’t want that. Children can do far more than we think. Give me a hand for that please. I’ve worked with juku classes in Japan. My number one concern was were these students looking upset or under pressure. No, they were doing word problems at age 4 in these juku classes.
Q: How are you supporting the GI Bill and what teachers are prepared to support emotionally difficult veterans?
A: Great question. Our governor and legislature have done what most states have not done: They have worked to protect us through higher education through a very difficult four-, five-year period by not cutting our budget, so we could continue to build quality. Give my state Maryland a hand for that please. The lieutenant governor of our state is a veteran, himself. And he’s led the effort, with college presidents, to come up with a template with the most important services we need to use in supporting emotionally, academically, financially those people. The most impressive part of veterans with me is the sense of discipline that these young people have — that they are ready to work hard, and that they know a lot about the importance of education.
Q: What do you think about the arguments against college?
A: All I have to ask you all here is, where would you be without the privilege of an education? For most Americans, unless you come from a wealthy family, what else can you do? Four-year liberal college is not for everybody, especially not at 18. For many students, it’s better to get into a two-year program, get a job and then they can still go back and get that degree.
Q: Let’s talk a little bit more about the factions in the battle for education.
A: I just gave a keynote in New Orleans this week at the annual conference of Blackboard 2012. Blackboard is the course management system for universities. And it is increasingly important on most campuses. Now, faculty more and more are finding ways of using Blackboard to have ongoing communities of students studying and talking about issues. Faculty can even use discussion boards to encourage people who wouldn’t speak in class to begin talking. Technology is going to become increasingly important in our learning experience. My campus participated in the recent Ithaca study of Bill Bowen, involving hybrid courses. We used our best faculty members to teach courses in the traditional way. And we experimented by having another type of course delivery using the hybrid approach, meaning that some of the lectures were the regular approach, but much of the work was done by the students with each other online. Amazingly, there was no difference in performance on very objective tests. And that was the first time we had done it. As we get better with the hybrid approach, it’s going to get better than the traditional way.
Q: What do we as a country do about student debt?
A: I think we would all agree that we want to help families — the institution that is best for that family. I will say publicly that I am appalled at the disproportionately large percentage of all that debt we talk about that is associated with for-profit institutions for low-income people who never get a degree. It is a major problem in our country. They simply don’t know that the quality at a public community college will simply be much better. A third of that debt just comes from, simply, people who didn’t know. So, we have to teach families what their options are. Half of Americans start at two-year institutions. It’s not enough to be so concerned about social prestige that you go out there and end up with hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ debt — and you have no way to pay for it.
Q: How do you avoid penalizing the hardest worker in the group, when the others don’t carry their weight?
A: You talk about those issues a great deal in that class, because you’re trying to prepare people for two points. One, you’re never going have someone that is consistently high-achieving. Two, you can pull out the best and get people to get better. But wise professors will take final grade into account. I think we have to rethink the culture and the values in that case.
Q: Why are more and more medical students opting for specialties?
A: Money. Lifestyle. Let’s just be honest: Who is more valuable? Somebody who bounces a ball or somebody who saves lives? Or who teaches children?
Q: If you had a daughter who was just starting the first grade, what would you do to inspire her to learn and love math and science?
A: Read my book about overcoming the odds as young girls. I don’t get any money; it goes to the school. But here’s the point, Legos are really good for kids. Puzzles. And for girls and boys, cooking in math is great. And using money in math. Kids don’t really understand parts and concepts of fractions and decimals in relationship to quarters, nickels and dimes in a dollar. One statistic from NAEP — The Nation’s Report Card — and here’s the problem: I give you a menu at a restaurant, and I tell you to select two items. Every item costs under $10. One item is $7, and one item is $6. You don’t have to worry about taxes, you have a $20 bill. You’ve chosen those two items. The question is how much change should you get? Half of whites and two-thirds of people of color, age 21 in America, got that problem incorrect. There are two issues here: one is that it doesn’t even seem possible, because it’s so easy a second-grader could get it. Secondly, for anybody who is reasonably educated, that doesn’t even seem possible. And that is what I mean by the difference between those who are privileged and people at this other level. There’s a reason why they have people swipe for change at these fast food places. People can’t do it.
Q: How do you teach students how to write when they only have time for one- to two-page papers?
A: People in the arts have a lot to teach many of us. Teaching of the arts involve inspiring, teaching, critiquing, coaching — and it’s iterative. I remember when my mother would have papers, she would be really going through the papers and raising questions and circling things. She would give them back to people, and they’d redo them, revise, and it would get a little bit better. And the final grade would be how one writes at the end of the semester. Unfortunately, in some disciplines, we have three tests, and you average the three together. And the kid didn’t do well in the first half of the course. And the second half is based on the first half. What happens as a result is that the student ends up not doing well. In writing, we need as many opportunities writing, to be evaluated, to revise — that iterative process. The same thing is true in reading. And the same thing is true in math.
Q: What about ethics components in math and science?
A: Regularly, as we punish kids for cheating, I would have parents, professionals call me and demand that we not punish the student. You’d be surprised how many people think cheating is not that bad. And what that says to me as an educator is how appalling it is, because cheating at one level leads to the next level. And the only way you focus on ethics is by talking about it and making it a part of the culture of a place. You have case studies and look at examples of when it happens, and you find ways to teach lessons, whether it’s with students or colleagues. Auditors will tell you once you have fraud, you either sweep it under the carpet, or you take that situation and you use it as a case study. You may think they’re wonderful, honest people, but they cheated. And we need to understand: Anybody can do it, if you’re not careful. It has everything to do with character. And I talk about how character is so important in America that we understand that our future is truly affected by our character.
Q: How do we convince our politicians that the cost of education is far less than the cost of illiteracy?
A: Those of us who are blessed to have an education are leaders. We have to understand in this country that true leadership is not about one person or congress or president. It is about all of us. We have a responsibility, all of us, to say in as many ways as possible that it is education that FDR would say everyone has a reasonable level of reading in this country. The only way that we can have less people dying in the streets and going to prisons is to give them that education. Because without an education, people work to make money in different ways. We must learn as Americans to participate in debate and learn to listen to the other side as we argue. If all we’re doing in a debate is trying to win, we don’t figure out what’s best for everybody. We’ve got to find ways to talk about the sticky issues and allow people to say what they really think without immediately attacking, letting reason prevail. Let me leave you with a quote that my parents left me long ago that I use with my students all the time: “Watch your thoughts, they become your words. Watch your words, they become your actions. Watch your actions, they become your habit. Watch your habits, they become your character.” I tell my students, your character has everything to do with who you are, but not only when people can see you, but what were you doing when your mother’s not there. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your character. Watch your character — it becomes your destiny, dreams and values.

—Transcribed by Yemi Falodun

There is one comment

  1. mireilleboutin

    How about just making sure that the basics are provided in all math classes? Simple things like recitations, teaching assistants, and appropriate classrooms, for example. It’s great to innovate, but I see a dangerous tendency to cut funding for the basics in the name of “innovation”.

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