Over lunch, the workshop featured a keynote address from Freeman Hrabowski, who has been president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) for 23 years. He began his talk by recounting a conversation he had just minutes before with a young African American woman who was about to finish her Ph.D. in biochemistry. She told him she was considering taking a postdoctoral research position, but in all likelihood she would be pursuing a career in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) policy world. When he suggested she think about becoming a faculty member in an academic biochemistry department, she responded that she looks around in academia and does not see anyone like her in any faculty roles. That, said Hrabowski, is an important message: our bright, young students need to see a place for themselves in STEM if the goal is to get them to stay in STEM.
Many Americans, said Hrabowski, do not see themselves as being a part of the STEM workforce, either because they are afraid of STEM or are unaware or do not understand the career opportunities that exist in STEM other than those that require a Ph.D. Even those students who are in Ph.D. programs are unaware of the career opportunities that do not entail years of postdoctoral training with only a vague sense there may be a job sometime in the future. “I would say to the scientific community that we are so shortsighted if we continue to say to so many talented young people to have faith and maybe something will happen that is good for you,” said Hrabowski.
He then challenged the workshop participants to start thinking that tomorrow can be different from today, that a field full of innovators should be able to think of new ways to get students excited about math and sci-
ence. As an example, he recounted how he became interested in math thanks to a professor at Tuskegee University who challenged him and the other high school students participating in a summer program sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF). “A professor came into the room, put a problem on the board that he said none of us could solve, and told us to come see him when we solved the problem. Everyone was upset, and yet I thought the guy was Superman. He felt that we had it in ourselves if we worked together to solve that problem, and that started me on this 40-year path,” said Hrabowski.
After asking the workshop attendees to raise their hands if they love math, he said that when he asks that question of American audiences, it would be unusual if even 20 percent of the people raised their hands. One reason for this dismal response, he said, is that too many girls and children of color hear the message that math and science are not for them. “For large numbers of people in the United States, there is this notion that math and science are for the privileged few,” said Hrabowski, with the result that too many students have decided by the 11th grade they are either math and science people or English and history people. “My point is we tend to be told in many ways you are either this way or that way, and we have to get away from thinking one group of children is smart and another group is not as opposed to thinking about the characteristics of people who achieve—hard work, discipline, and a belief in themselves,” he said.
When he thinks about STEM in America, he continued, he thinks it is primarily an issue of attitude—that only smart people belong in STEM—and nowhere is this more of a challenge than at the university level where so-called weed-out classes do so much harm, even among well-prepared students. One of the surprising findings in the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine 2011 report Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation (NAS-NAE-IOM, 2011), he said, was that while only 20 percent of blacks and Hispanics who started in STEM programs at 4-year institutions finished those degrees, only 32 percent of white students who started in STEM programs graduated with STEM degrees. “It was surprising to everyone because we had assumed this was a K-12 problem, but when we got to the bottom of it, we found the problem was us,” said Hrabowski. Many students who did not do well in STEM courses, for example, had top scores on Advanced Placement exams, yet when they took their first quantitative courses and did not get an A or a B grade, they switched to fields in which they could get top grades. “Often, the best-prepared students start off in STEM and they become great lawyers,” he said.
He then posed the question that, if even high-achieving students have bad experiences in university STEM courses, why is it a surprise when as adults they do not support STEM funding? In fact, he added, what he sees
in the faces of successful adults in their thirties, forties, and fifties when he asks if they started college as STEM majors but graduated in other majors is a look of embarrassment, guilt, and pain. His suggestion to remedy this situation is for NSF and other federal agencies to rethink how STEM is taught at the undergraduate level. “That is not to say we do not want to continue to strengthen K-12, but I am saying that if even the students who have done well in K-12 do not do well in the first year or two of work in college, this is a place we can increase the number of students who major in STEM. Even if they decide not to have a degree in STEM, at least make sure they have a positive experience and leave STEM not feeling they were a failure,” said Hrabowski. What universities need to consider, he said, is the kind of knowledge all students, not just those interested in STEM majors, need to get from STEM courses. As suggested earlier, first-year courses could focus on having students work in groups, gain an appreciation for the larger context of the particular subject at hand, develop the ability to translate knowledge into marketable ideas, and even build emotional intelligence, something often lacking in first-year college students.
Regarding the STEM workforce, Hrabowski made several points. First, the number of STEM jobs will grow faster than the overall U.S. economy. Second, while those jobs will require some level of postsecondary school training, most will not need a Ph.D., and many will not require a bachelor’s degree. He noted that he is a strong believer in the value of 2-year colleges and the programs they offer for those students who want STEM jobs, but added the STEM community needs to do a better job marketing those opportunities. As an example, he said Montgomery College has a superb 2-year biotechnology program, but there are few students of color enrolled in that program. “Why?” he asked. “Because families do not know about these opportunities.” From his experience talking to high school students and their families, he believes that counseling departments need to stop telling students that the only option they have if they are of worth is to get a 4-year college degree.
Ten years ago, he admitted, he too believed everybody needed a 4-year degree, but after studying the opportunities available to students of differing backgrounds, he changed his point of view. While he heads a research university, he now believes there are different routes for people to take to careers that can change over their lifetimes. Today, he said, there are more than 100 companies working on his campus, and he has been fascinated that they have been able to reach out to young students of color and give them the opportunity to work in laboratories, to take courses at community colleges, and to nurture the idea that, one day, as these young workers become more mature and as they develop the skills they need to succeed, they can then have other opportunities to advance their education and their careers.
He noted, for example, that 54 percent of the STEM jobs that will be available in Maryland over the next few years will be for computer technicians, programmers, and scientists of varying levels of education and training. “We have to educate counselors, families, and communities about these opportunities and change the mindset that all students need one type of degree, and that a degree is limited to people who are ‘smart.’ We have to get away from this idea of smart,” said Hrabowski. In his mind, what counts more than smart is grit or hard work. “On my campus, we say we are the House of Grit,” said Hrabowski, “and if you want to talk about who is successful, it is the grit they have that makes the difference. It is those notions of grit, the intensity of curiosity, and persistence we should be talking about rather than smart.”
Years ago, he said, he had the opportunity to be part of a trilateral study involving the United States, Germany, and Japan, and he was fascinated to see how Germany’s apprenticeship program for high school graduates who were not going to college was producing workers who were better trained as chemists, for example, than Advanced Placement chemistry students. “What was clear was that chemistry for them was a part of what they saw as their future and not simply a course they had to get an A in,” said Hrabowski. Here in the United States he sees this play out at UMBC, where math is a favorite subject of the student body. The reason for this, he believes, is that many of the students have worked in STEM-related jobs during high school and college, either in industry or at one of the national security agencies in the Washington-Baltimore corridor, and they have seen how math is relevant to their futures.
What is needed, he said, is to knock down the barriers that keep companies, national agencies, high schools, and colleges in their silos and instead create a culture of education and training that will give people at every level some vision of the possibilities for a rewarding and remunerative career in STEM. For those students who pursue a Ph.D., for example, there should be clear opportunities for them when they graduate beyond the vague idea of taking one or more postdoctoral positions until some unidentified job turns up. All students graduating high school should know about the different opportunities that await them with given levels of further education and training. They should also understand they will have to be lifelong learners, whatever degree or training they pursue after high school. “We need to focus on the future lives of students, with a STEM-prepared person being someone who has the skills required by different industries today, but who is prepared to continue to learn,” said Hrabowski. “Whether we are talking about jobs requiring a 2-year, 4-year, or graduate degree, students need a broad education because what is clear is we really do not know how different the world will be and what specific skills students will need over their careers. People must be prepared to adapt to change and work in a
world of unknowns and to have the confidence that by asking good questions and working in collaboration with others, and with persistence, they can learn.” He added what sets successful STEM-capable individuals apart is not just that they have certain quantitative skills but also the ability to collaborate with people from other disciplines, to get the larger picture, and to express the importance of their work.
In closing, Hrabowski said it is clear the public does not understand the importance of STEM for the future of the nation’s children. Correcting this perception problem will require a change in culture across the entire U.S. educational system, but in particular at the nation’s colleges and universities. He called on federal agencies to help university and college presidents to ask what they are doing to help their students get jobs at every level, not just in academia, and to help the academic and corporate worlds form partnerships that can produce the STEM-capable workforce needed to meet future job opportunities. “We need to start judging the success of institutions based not just on the science they do but on the futures of their graduates,” he said. As a final comment, he called upon the workshop participants to practice encouraging curiosity in our nation’s youth. “What’s a STEM-capable person?” asked Hrabowski. “It’s a curious person who never stops asking questions.”
Jeff Livingston, from the McGraw-Hill Education Group, asked Hrabowski to comment on some of the alternatives to 4-year STEM degrees for students who want to pursue STEM careers. Community colleges, said Hrabowski, have long been more responsive to the needs of the business community, and there are lessons to be learned from the close relationships community colleges routinely build with the local business community. Boot camps, he added, can get students up to speed quickly, particularly in areas of high demand such as cybersecurity. While these boot camps do have a cost, students are able to repay that cost quickly given the salaries they then receive. “That is a more creative approach to meet demand than requiring everybody to get a major in computer science,” said Hrabowski. He noted, in fact, that some of the most successful chief information officers he knows were English, history, and philosophy majors who then took courses in information technology management. The ability to communicate well and talk to colleagues in plain English enabled these individuals to climb the corporate ladder quickly, and today he encourages UMBC’s computer science majors to take more classes that will help them learn to write and communicate effectively. One option, he said, would be to have NSF encourage institutions to help students integrate technology classes into a wide variety of majors.
Aprille Ericsson, from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, noted she was someone who got bad grades in her first year and yet still completed her engineering degree thanks to programs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that nurtured first-year students. She then asked Hrabowski if he had any ideas on how the federal government could encourage more women and students of color to pursue STEM majors and STEM careers. He replied that the biggest obstacle is a lack of role models and mentors in the federal workforce. “I don’t know a national agency in America, be it the National Institutes of Health, NSF, U.S. Department of Education (ED), NASA, or others, where even 1 percent of the practicing scientists are black and maybe 2 to 3 percent are Hispanic, and we need to say to ourselves as a community that we can do better than this,” said Hrabowski. While noting he was pleased the new head of engineering at NASA Goddard was a black woman who graduated from UMBC, he also said the dream is not about black scientists helping black students, but about human beings helping other human beings understand the power of STEM to solve the major problems of humankind. “When we get all Americans to understand that dream, we will not be excluding anyone,” he said.
As one example of how to produce change, he pointed out that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has provided funds to replicate UMBC’s Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which aims to increase diversity among future leaders in science, technology, engineering, and related fields, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Pennsylvania State University. The presidents and leading faculty at those institutions have spent time at UMBC to learn what they have to do to change the academic culture to support the aspirations of all students who show an interest in STEM. Another example Hrabowski cited was Project Lead the Way, a UMBC program providing faculty and K-12 teachers with the opportunity to work in engineering firms so they can better understand the career opportunities for their students. He did note there is a need for more data to get a better sense of what drives students to follow pathways into STEM and what happens to them after they graduate from STEM programs.
Ellen Lettvin, from ED, asked what role agencies other than those that directly fund science can play in nurturing STEM-capable workers. Hrabowski said there need to be mechanisms for rewarding mentors and advisers to not only make themselves aware of the career opportunities in STEM but also to follow them as they move through their careers. He recounted writing to Nobel Laureate Tom Cech to thank him for taking a number of UMBC graduates into his laboratory at the University of Colorado and having Cech reply that Hrabowski had failed to mention four additional students and telling Hrabowski where they had landed after leaving Colorado. “If a Nobel Laureate can do this, there is no excuse for
anyone else not to do it,” said Hrabowski. “You can be a great researcher and a great human being, but it has to be practiced.”
The only way there will be change, he continued, will be through a change in attitude and mindset. Companies are far more proactive than academia about inclusiveness and training. So, too, are the nation’s security agencies. “When the National Security Agency tells me it wants people from all sorts of backgrounds because it needs to know how they think, that is a level of enlightenment that I do not often see in universities or other federal agencies,” said Hrabowski.
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