Ensuring that more minority students succeed in science and engineering is more than an altruistic goal; it ultimately could be the deciding factor in whether the United States retains its competitive edge in an ever-increasingly competitive world.
Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, brought this message to an audience of about 75 students Feb. 7. Part of Emory's observance of Black History Month, the address was sponsored by the Hughes Undergraduate Science Initiative, the Office of Multicultural Programs and Services, and the Office of Minority Affairs in the School of Medicine.
A nationally recognized science educator who holds a Ph.D. in statistics, Hrabowski drew a clear picture for his audience of how seriously younger students in other countries take their studies compared to American children. "In Germany, you see 16-year-olds spending several days a week in their high school chemistry class and several days a week in a company working as a technician," he said. "They take this very seriously. It's a way of life. High school chemistry in the United States is just another class for most students."
Hrabowski also cited the examples of Japan, where "three and 4-year olds are competing to get into the right kindergarten," and Taiwan, "where students go to school six days a week. They come to the United States from junior college and go right into graduate school, and they do just fine," he said.
In the context of this increasingly stiff competition from the rest of the world, America also is undergoing a dramatic demographic shift, Hrabowski said. "By the year 2050, nearly one of every two Americans will be persons of color," he said. "Many California campuses already have student bodies that are more than 50 percent persons of color."
These shifts, Hrabowski said, send a clear message to American higher education and industry: if the country is to remain competitive into the 21st century, it must make sure that more of its students are comfortable with science and technology.
"When you don't do as well in science as you did in high school, how do you respond?" Hrabowski rhetorically asked his audience. "By saying, `I'm not as smart as I thought' or `Science is not for me.' On the other hand, if you take a social science class and make an A, you might say, `Oh, I'll become a lawyer.' The difference is that in the social sciences and humanities, if you can read, write and think well, you'll probably do fine. But in science and math, you can work really hard and know the material well, take a test with five questions, bum out on two of them and get a D. Math and science are just more unpredictable. You never really know if you're prepared for the test. Unless you think beyond a cookbook formula for solving problems, you can be thrown off easily."
What makes math and science more challenging, Hrabowski said, is that "it requires more initiative on the part of the student. You must think fast."
Hrabowski also offered another piece of advice for minority students interested in science and technology careers: find a good study group and take it seriously. "People who work in groups tend to do better than those who study alone," he said. "It gives you a chance to actually talk about the concepts you're studying, which makes it more a part of your experience. It pushes you to be more precise with your language."
Perhaps the most overarching issue for all students, Hrabowski said, is creating a culture where intellect is highly revered, or a culture in which it's "cool to be smart."
"So many other cultures look at intellect as the most important facet of a person's development, rather than athleticism," he said. "We need to be more like that."