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The Meyerhoff Influence

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When Robert and Jane Meyerhoff first implemented The Meyerhoff Scholarship Program back in 1988, it was designed to provide financial support, training, valuable experience, and opportunities for African American males committed to earning Ph.D. degrees in math, science and engineering. Some twenty-three years (and nineteen graduating classes) later, the Meyerhoff Scholars program has evolved into a model of educational excellence.

Part of the challenge of educators, in any discipline, is finding ways to pique and keep the interest of students, particularly with respect to science and math. Where the U.S. was once the world leader in science education, we now lag behind twenty of thirty developed nations in student performance on international science tests#. Creativity expert and educator, Sir Ken Robinson, insists that the changing paradigms in education require a total transformation of the American education system as a whole. The system, he says, was developed to train workers for the Industrial Revolution. As we have moved further and further into the Information Age, we have made a transition into what author Richard Florida calls the Creative Era. Education, then, needs to be completely rethought to cultivate creativity and develop in our students (and future workforce) the ability to problem-solve, collaborate and think creatively#. That is the new standard of educational excellence.

The Success Model

The success of the Meyerhoff Scholars Program lies in its ability to emphasize the unlimited potential of each scholar. The program is specifically shaped to provide students the necessary academic, professional and social tools needed to succeed in undergraduate studies and equip students to excel in subsequent graduate programs. Dr. Joseph Towles, Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Northwestern University, is a Meyerhoff alum who was a member of the third class (M3, entering the fall of 1991) of scholars. His experience in the Meyerhoff program is gladly recalled as an experiment in excellence. “They fostered an environment which reinforced that we were the best,” he says. “It was constantly drilled into us – ‘You’re the top 5% of African Americans studying science, technology, engineering and math in the country; you can do anything you want to do.’”

For Dr. Towles, excellence included accountability, problem-solving and the willingness to collaborate with other students, sharing knowledge with peers and younger program scholars, as well as receiving insight from upper classmen. The cohorts, as the scholars are called, are expected to work collectively. Where similar science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs may encourage competition, the Meyerhoff program adheres to a strong practice of mutual support and ownership – both of the cohort’s own success and the success of other program participants. “The program is only as strong as its weakest member,” reports Towles. “If one of us is hurting academically, we all hurt.” It is that sense of cohesive team-building that keeps University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the Meyerhoff Scholars program at the forefront of STEM education.

Each year, high school administrators, most of them in Maryland, submit approximately 2,000 nominations for new enrollees. Preference is given to students who demonstrate talent in science and math and who have successfully completed accelerated courses. The top 100 – 150 applicants and their families are invited to attend Selection Weekend, where students get the opportunity to meet for the first time, familiarize themselves with faculty members, partake in activities and engage in both formal and informal interviews. Of the applicants who participate in Selection Weekend, 50 are invited to enroll as Meyerhoff Scholars. Before fall classes, cohorts are required to attend a six-week accelerated program on campus called Summer Bridge wherein they take for-credit and non-credit college courses in chemistry, calculus, African American studies, time management, study skills and physics. During the Summer Bridge program, cohorts get a glimpse of university life as a Meyerhoff scholar. They live together, solidify bonds with fellow scholars, form study groups and are indoctrinated in the Meyerhoff values.

Dr. Annica Wayman (M6) is an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development and a Meyerhoff alumna. Dr. Wayman credits Meyerhoff with encouraging scholars to work together to build a network of mutual support. “UMBC’s Summer Bridge Program really worked to bond us as a family so that the competitiveness went away and we were all there to help each other,” she says. “If we had to be up to the late hours of the morning studying, we would do it and we would do it together. If I had questions, I went to teachers for help. It helped me to persevere through the difficult times.”

Perseverance is one of the qualities the Meyerhoff Scholars program is designed to strengthen. In a January 2011 editorial for Science magazine, UMBC president, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski III reported that only about 20% of minorities who begin their undergraduate careers pursuing STEM degrees actually complete STEM degrees, compared to 33% of whites. The editorial indicates that minority students pursuing STEM tracks typically experience higher instances of isolation. As only 2-3% of minorities hold an undergraduate degree in a STEM field, the transition into college life as one of very few underrepresented minorities (which includes African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders) may prove more difficult socially, economically and emotionally than academically. Minorities are more likely to be the first in their families to attend college and face a greater likelihood that they will have to cut their education short because of a lack of financial resources. Echoing Robinson’s advice, Dr. Hrabowski insists that the key to retaining STEM talent is to “redesign first year STEM classes to encourage active learning and collaboration#.”

Iron Sharpens Iron

Dr. Oliver Myers (M1) currently serves as Assistant Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering at Mississippi State University. He credits UMBC with creating a program that boasts world-renowned scientists and researchers who are committed to nurturing the talent of students and not just pushing for research and publication. In addition to attentive faculty members, each Meyerhoff scholar is paired with a knowledgeable mentor already working in a STEM field. The priority is in developing the students as scientists, researchers and as individuals. The program also facilitates relationships within the STEM community that give scholars access to strategic summer internships and valuable research opportunities.

From the beginning, students are groomed to relentlessly pursue the goal of achieving a research-based Ph.D. Dr. Myers recalls that his original goal was to earn an MBA and transition into the workforce. It was the influence of Dr. Hrabowski that motivated him to achieve his Ph.D. despite a setback which essentially resulted in him having to complete two separate Ph.D. programs to earn his doctorate. Scholars are set up to become situational successes, products of their environments, identified by Dr. Towles as a case of iron sharpening iron. Dr. Wayman confirms, “When I came to UMBC, I saw how many other highly intelligent black males and females were coming to UMBC to pursue math and science. That in and of itself was so uplifting and encouraging.”

And Dr. Myers expresses a similar sentiment, “When I got to UMBC, I saw another fifteen to twenty African American men that were focused, disciplined and had similar goals and motivation. We were all going to be part of this program, and I thought, ‘This is where I need to be; this is where I need to grow.’”

Meyerhoff cohorts are encouraged to shun mediocrity and strive for excellence within the scope of program requirements. The minimum allowed GPA for continued participation in the Meyerhoff program is 3.0. As well, Dr. Towles notes that during his tenure, students were discouraged from participating in any activities which may compromise their academic performance, including pledging sororities and fraternities. Students who receive Cs in any class are encouraged to retake the course and learn the skills in which they are deficient before moving on to the next course.

Recognizing high-performing scholars was a regular part of the Meyerhoff experience. “Within the program, I probably had the highest grades among my peers, so I knew that I was doing something special. I received several awards from my department that supported my success,” says Dr. Towles. “It just changes your whole psyche about what you can do and what your limits and potential are.” Dr. Towles attributes his continued success in graduate studies at Stanford to what he calls UMBC’s purposeful brain-washing.

Positive social peer pressure also plays an important role in the program. Working toward a common goal within an intellectual community of their peers, scholars are imbued with a sense of ability and confidence in themselves, essentially becoming living endorsements for the value offered through the Meyerhoff Scholars program. Cohorts participate in community service programs and are trained to be favorable representations of Meyerhoff in all endeavors. “As a result of going through the program, I really thought that I could do anything I put my mind to,” Dr. Towles remembers. “Their job was to make us realize that we were the best at what we were doing, to act like it and carry ourselves [accordingly].”

The Backdrop

“To preserve its economic future, this country needs to get many more American students — especially more minority students — excited about science.” – Brent Staples, The New York Times

In the last decade, there has been quite a bit of talk about the creative class – that group of scientists, engineers, architects, designers, educators, artists, musicians and entertainers who are primarily charged with the responsibility of innovation#. Historically, the U.S. has been an adamant supporter of creativity and new ideas. Adherence to those values drew the world’s best and the brightest creative talent into the U.S. workforce. In so doing, we were able to solidify our place at the forefront of innovation and secure ourselves as global business leaders across a span of various industries.

For decades, the fear has loomed that the U.S is not producing enough STEM talent to remain competitive in the global market. Some economists do believe that the U.S. is facing a shortage of skilled workers, which includes STEM professionals.# The topic is debatable. On the one hand, it could be argued that the evidence of a talent shortage would present itself in a plethora of STEM jobs that go unfilled. That is not always the case. On the other hand, if we consider that the shortage may be equally a matter of homegrown talent and continuing to recruit STEM talent from abroad, then the U.S. may, in fact, have a problem.

Innovation may be the single most important ingredient in determining global leadership. At the very least, it is the most valuable asset in the U.S. job market.# Economic growth follows innovation, which trails closely behind talent. John Chen, CEO of Sybase, a California-based software development giant, submits that current U.S. immigration policies may be hampering the acquisition of talented STEM professionals from abroad#. Since 911, the U.S. has slowed its recruiting efforts quite possibly as a result of a shift in the perception of immigration from being a viable method of talent acquisition to what Pete Hodgson, New Zealand’s former Minister for Research, Science and Technology, calls gate-keeping.

In growing economies around the world, nations are investing resources into science and technology education with the specific intention of providing a better way of life for future generations. The U.S. has a goal to improve STEM participation within the domestic population as a whole, and specifically within the Underrepresented Minority (URM) population. URMS are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. While URMs currently account for 30% of the total population, they account for only 9% of the STEM workforce. # The goal for the U.S. government is to increase STEM degrees among URMs from 2-3% to 10%. According Dr. Hrabowski, doing so will require an annual investment of around $150 million to start.

The Challenge

Our challenge is to groom and employ STEM talent for the future and continue recruiting efforts to acquire the human capital needed to keep the U.S. competitive. The urgency of that task is compounded by the fact that graduation rates for U.S. high school students hover somewhere around 75% (64% for Hispanics and 62% for African Americans) and a substantial number of students are ill-prepared to pursue STEM degrees as they lack the educational math and science prerequisites#.

It has been said that programs like the Meyerhoff Scholars program capitalize on finding exceptional talents that would do well in most any educational situation, but Meyerhoff scholars are 5.3 times more likely to have graduated from or be currently attending a STEM Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D. program than those students who were invited to join the program but declined and attended another university.” As of February 2011, the program has graduated 700 alumni with 300 students currently enrolled in graduate and professional programs. Meyerhoff alumni have earned 81 Ph.D.s, 25 M.D./Ph.D.s and 92 M.D.s from such institutions as Harvard, NYU, Johns Hopkins, Duke, the University of Pennsylvania, M.I.T., Berkeley, Yale, and the University of Maryland, College Park. While the Meyerhoff Scholars Program has made a shift from being centrally focused on educating African American males to educating people from all backgrounds, the commitment is still to increase the representation of minorities in science and engineering (S&E) fields. Of the 230 students currently enrolled in the program, 51% are African American#.

Edited by Sorilbran Buckner