Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Michael Summers and the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program

I remember reading about about the Meyerhoff Program of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (sorry, no links!) sometime ago; it's meant for attracting members of under-represented minority groups into science. Today's NYTimes has an interview with Michael Summers, a professor participating in that program.

Q. Define the problem, please.

A. Less than 3 percent of Ph.D.’s awarded in science, mathematics and engineering go to African-Americans. In my field, chemistry, it’s around 2 percent. I think there are about a dozen blacks a year who get math Ph.D.’s. The numbers don’t have to be that low. We know from the College Board that there are large numbers of blacks who want to graduate with degrees in the sciences. Many want to become doctors. But we lose them in their freshman and sophomore years.

Q. Why do they leave?

A. The big thing is that the way beginning chemistry, calculus and physics are taught at most colleges is discouraging. They are taught as gateway courses, and they are structured to weed out students. The Chem 101 professor gets up at the first session and says, “Look around you; only one person here is going to end up a chemistry major.”

That’s discouraging to everyone, but for the African-Americans, it’s really negative. These are young people who — because of history — may already feel that society has low expectations of them. The crunch comes after the first exam when the black youngster might pull a C and when some of the whites and international students get A’s. When he or she goes up to the professor, he says, “Listen, you passed, what’s your complaint?” And the student thinks, “Maybe the professor is right, I don’t belong here.”

Q. What should the professor have said instead?

A. “How many hours a night are you studying?” “Can I help you find a study group so that you can do better?”

Thanks to Pradeepkumar for the pointer.


  1. gaddeswarup said...

    “Can I help you find a study group so that you can do better?”
    Being somewhat of a loner in my student days, I did not benefit from this but I met many people including my father who said how they benefited from 'combined studies'. In my forties, I started colloborating and I found that really improves one's awareness, focus and performance ( I believe that I did my best work after the age of 55, mainly because of colloboration). Overall outcome seems to be better than the sum of the parts. Perhaps this happens in discussions too. I am all for encouraging study groups.