Bill LaCourse felt inadequate.
Some of his Chemistry 101 students sat in the back of the lecture hall and spaced out. Others simply left class as they pleased. "Maybe you're just not a good teacher," his department head said when LaCourse sought advice.
His ego would not tolerate that as a final answer. So the University of Maryland, Baltimore County professor decided to put up a fight. If he couldn't make the class work in a traditional lecture format, the format would have to change.
"We need to do something drastic," he remembers thinking as he and his colleagues dreamed up a space they christened the Chemistry Discovery Center. The center would become a prime example of the teaching innovation that is a major component of UMBC's rising national reputation.
It feels like an alternate dimension compared to the freshman lectures you might remember. A large class is broken into teams of four, with each member serving a defined role such as "scribe" or "manager." The teams work through a series of chemistry problems, with professors circulating to take questions instead of speaking from the front of the room. If students arrive late, they're denied entry. They get five minutes of bathroom time in a two-hour class period, and cell phones are verboten. It seems more like elementary school than college.
But the idea has worked.
Since the center's inception six years ago, the failure rate for Chemistry 101 has been halved to 15 percent, and the number of chemistry majors at the university has doubled to 160. UMBC officials say these gains are vital at a time when schools around the country are straining to produce more graduates in science, technology, engineering and math, also known as the STEM fields.
At a more essential level, says UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the chemistry center speaks to his institution's soul.
"What you see from our faculty, across disciplines, is an excitement about experimentation," Hrabowski says. "We're honest about looking in the mirror and saying what works and what doesn't. But when they're thinking of trying new approaches, we don't want them to worry about what might not succeed."
Hrabowski was recently featured in a "60 Minutes" television piece describing the university as one of the most progressive in the country. When the Carnegie Corp. gave Hrabowski a $500,000 leadership prize this fall, it cited the university's pervasive focus on teaching excellence. For the last three years, U.S. News & World Report has included UMBC on a list of 10 universities most focused on undergraduate teaching. A billboard along Interstate 95 touts that UMBC tied with Yale on the 2012 list.
"It's part of our culture," Hrabowski says. "It comes out of the faculty. They're constantly thinking about how to make students succeed."
The most acclaimed success story from Hrabowski's tenure at UMBC is the Meyerhoff Scholars Program, which funnels top minority students to doctoral studies in STEM fields.
"But this is different," Hrabowski says of the more recent course redesigns. "It's about creating approaches that make sure the average student does well. Taking care of the best-prepared students is not enough."
To goose the process, Hrabowski plans to start an innovation fund using his Carnegie prize. Faculty will be able to apply for grants when they have ideas for new or revamped courses.
UMBC officials note that the course redesigns have not been exclusive to the sciences. Revamped psychology courses have also produced higher pass rates, and the English faculty is redesigning freshman composition courses to include more training in visual media and more one-on-one coaching.
Many courses retain a traditional lecture format, but from Hrabowski on down, the university's leaders talk about more interactive approaches as the wave of the future.
"My experience of college was sitting in the back of a lecture hall and falling asleep," says interim Provost Philip Rous. "That teaching style is just not that effective for a lot of students. Just because that's the way we experienced it does not mean that's the most effective way to do things."
It was frustration with the failure of the old way that prompted LaCourse to blow up the way UMBC taught chemistry.
"A lot of it was gut," he says of the changes. "I didn't know what I was doing when I started."
He decided to look for factors that drive achievement in the broader world. He wanted students to compete with one another to reach the best answers. He wanted them to take responsibility for getting something out of each class session. He wanted them to feel the thrill of discovering scientific truths on their own.
"It's in all of us to do these things," he says. "We're just looking for the natural motivators."
As LaCourse lays out his theory, student teams puzzle through a list of chemistry questions in the background. Professor Diana Hamilton never stands behind a lectern to talk. She simply floats from table to table, taking questions when they arise. Most of the noise in the bustling classroom is generated by the students.
"What's cool is that they talk," LaCourse says. "I love the noise. It's like being in a bar or sitting around a campfire."
Here's the funny thing: Many students dislike the redesigned chemistry courses.
"I just don't like the format," says Maahedi Savvy, a sophomore from Lutherville. "A lot of these questions are not even going to be on the exam."
"If no one in the group understands what you're doing, you can spend 15 minutes just staring at it and getting nothing," adds his teammate, Jayson Allan, a senior from Severna Park.
Students also complain about the rules against lateness and extended bathroom breaks, though they acknowledge that it's sometimes more helpful to learn from peers than from the professor.
UMBC professors have a simple answer for students who are thrown off by the format — it works.
"People feel that, well, I'm back in high school again. I went to college to be free," says Rous. "But if you talk to students later on, they will tell you how important it was for them to get that A in introductory chemistry."
Last year, the university opened a larger spinoff classroom known as CASTLE, which is used by a wide array of science and math classes. The space, where students work in teams around circular tables and professors post questions on strategically placed flat-screen televisions, is a former campus bookstore renovated for about $500,000.
Hrabowski says he gets a thrill every time he walks through the airy classroom. "This," he says, "is the most exciting stuff going on in higher education today."