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A model institution

Who says sitting in the back of a packed lecture hall trying to absorb the intricacies of trigonometric functions or the chemistry of organic molecules is the only way to teach aspiring young scientists the tools of their trade? Well, tradition mostly. That's how generations of undergraduate math and science students were trained, and for a long time the system seemed to work.

But there was always a downside to the method: Far too many of those budding Einsteins and Edisons never made it past Chemistry 101. Discouraged by the impersonal formality and isolation of a hard sciences education, they dropped out to pursue less abstruse fields of study.

That's why University of Maryland Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski thought there had to be a better way. A few years ago, to give just one example, a third of the students in UMBC's introductory chemistry class were flunking, and their instructor was at wits' end. So Mr. Hrabowski, a mathematician by training and great promoter of science education, gave his chemistry department the green light to shake things up.

The chemistry instructor started by breaking up his large class up into small teams of four students each. Next, he assigned specific responsibilities to each member of the team as they worked through a series of chemistry problems. Then, instead of delivering his remarks from behind a lectern, he circulated freely around the classroom, kibitzing from the sidelines as students worked.

Today, the number of students failing chemistry at UMBC has been cut in half and the number of chemistry majors has doubled. It's just one example of the innovative approach to instruction that has won the school top ratings in national surveys and propelled the once-sleepy Catonsville campus into the upper ranks of undergraduate teaching programs.

Educators from around the country regularly visit the school to learn the secret of its success. But as Mr. Hrabowski is the first to tell them, there is no secret — unless it's simply to try everything you can think of until you find something that works. And don't be afraid of making mistakes. Talented instructors and staff will always find a way to do extraordinary things if you just get out of the way and let them.

As the state's honors university with a particular focus on science, technology, engineering and math, UMBC enrolls some of the best-prepared high school graduates of any institution of higher learning in the University System of Maryland. But even some top STEM students have difficulty making the transition from high school math and science to the more rigorous courses they encountered at the college level.

Mr. Hrabowski and his colleagues realized that the biggest challenge the school faced was keeping those young people on track during the inevitable adjustment period so they wouldn't give up in frustration before finding out they could master their subjects. Once they got their first A in chemistry, physics or math, they were virtually unstoppable. If that meant breaking up lecture courses into small groups or developing interactive materials that allowed students to teach each other things that once only professors could impart, so be it.

In effect, the UMBC president and faculty turned the entire school into a giant experimental laboratory for testing innovative teaching methods and instructional strategies. If it hasn't thrown tradition completely out the window, it has given it a new focus: Ensuring that all students, not just the most gifted, succeed in the hardest subjects. That's something the rest of the country is rightly taking notice of. It's also an approach that could well serve as a model for the entire University of Maryland system.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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