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Posted at 10:33 AM ET, 02/21/2011

Fixing higher ed: Freeman Hrabowski, UMBC

By Daniel de Vise

In a story that published Sunday in The Washington Post Magazine, I offer eight suggestions to "fix" higher education. I will host a brief online Q&A on the fixes at 11 a.m. Tuesday. Click here to pose a question in advance. There is even a poll, which you will find a bit farther down on this blog.

For the story, I sought help from several great leaders and thinkers. Some submitted their own thoughts on how to improve higher education. I'm posting them this week. Here is the fifth of those submissions, from Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Solutions for Higher Education

Problem: College students of all backgrounds struggle in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses at a time when the U.S. needs to increase dramatically the number of graduates in these fields. hrabowski.jpg

Solution: Group learning in introductory courses supports student success and increases interest in pursuing STEM majors, with the long-term goal of increasing the numbers of students who graduate in STEM majors and pursue graduate studies and careers in these fields.

Strategy: Ten years ago, we examined how we were teaching our introductory science classes, with the goal of improving the academic performance of students. A 200-plus lecture hall does not work for everyone, and does not necessarily encourage student engagement with the work and each other.

At UMBC, we are undergoing a shift in culture - one that builds on the success of our Meyerhoff Scholars Program, in which a community of STEM students study and live together. The shift is also based on a growing emphasis on the importance of community found on our campus. For example, while students at some other institutions are often motivated by competition, Meyerhoffs Scholars rely on mutual support and continually challenge each other to excel, creating an environment emphasizing collaboration and high achievement. Students are encouraged to form study groups for particular classes--within their majors, with Meyerhoff students, and with other students.

Since 2005, we have transformed two introductory chemistry courses into "Discovery Learning" courses (held in the Chemistry Discovery Center). These courses focus on active learning, including teams of four students who work together to solve problems, talk about chemistry, and share solutions to problems - rather than sitting passively in a lecture hall. Each member of the team plays different roles during the semester (supervision, record keeping, data collection, result dissemination). Attendance is mandatory, cell phones are banned, and students must arrive on time (otherwise they find themselves locked out of the classroom) - requirements that emphasize to students that they are responsible not only for themselves, but also to their fellow team members. The faculty member serves as a facilitator, moving among the teams to be supportive, as necessary. The result has been that overall test scores and pass rates are increasing, fewer students are dropping the courses, and the number of chemistry majors has doubled.

Our next step is to infuse "Discovery Learning" across all foundation and gateway STEM courses. Another high-tech classroom, known as the CASTLE (College Active Science Teaching and Learning Environment), now in the beta stage, is shared among Math and Physics Departments.

We continue to assess the effectiveness of our programs and to incorporate what we've learned in order to continue improving student achievement, measured by grades, student retention, and graduation rates. UMBC is part of a new National Science Foundation study to evaluate what approaches - including community-based study groups, proactive mentoring, and the active learning experience in CASTLE - improve grades, keep students engaged and enrolled at UMBC, and graduate as STEM majors. The five-year study will follow full-time freshmen who intend to pursue STEM majors.

As we look at ways to invest in the success of students from all backgrounds, and to address the issue of underrepresentation of minorities in the sciences, our "Discovery Learning" approach could be a critical factor in improving the STEM teaching at the K-12 level. I recently chaired a National Academies committee that has recommended strategies for increasing the number of minority scientists and engineers. It is well documented that our nation needs a strong science and technology work force to maintain its position of global leadership and competitiveness. At present, while only 20 percent of underrepresented minority freshmen who major in science and engineering graduate in these disciplines, the percentages of white and Asian American students who do so also remain relatively low (33 and 42 percent, respectively). The minds and talents of students of all races, in general, and of underrepresented minorities, in particular, are a great untapped resource that the nation can no longer afford to squander.

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By Daniel de Vise  | February 21, 2011; 10:33 AM ET
Categories:  Access, Administration, Attainment, Pedagogy, Students  | Tags:  Fixing higher education, Freeman Hrabowski, UMBC, fixing higher ed washington post, how to fix higher education  
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Next: Fixing higher ed: StraighterLine's Burck Smith


Mr. Hrabowski does an excellent job at UMBC. I have heard him speak many, many times and am always awed and inspired by his tireless efforts to help all students be successful.

Posted by: 12345leavemealone | February 22, 2011 8:18 AM | Report abuse

One of these again? Really? Am I the only one who thinks STEM is doing fine despite all the naysayers? Just in my state school in Texas a few years ago, 5000(!) engineers graduated, and that's just one institution. The sciences are in a glut and people usually go to grad school because there's so many other science degrees out there. Why are we still stuck on encouraging more STEM when its obvious there is still demand to study in these fields for those who really want to. The real issue is providing jobs for those already in the field...

Posted by: jivrooster | February 22, 2011 9:00 AM | Report abuse

I have degrees in Physics, Electrical Engineering, and Computer Science, so I know what I speak of. This approach to group learning is inane. I would not want to hire people from such a program. The strongest graduates are the ones to learned the material on their own initiative. Group learning works well in a lab environment and sometimes when doing homework problems, but delegating all learning to group work results in dumbing down the curriculum to the lowest common denominator.

Posted by: kschur1 | February 22, 2011 11:00 AM | Report abuse

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