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UMBC gives minority freshmen a head start


They had been offered admission and scholarships to some of the most prestigious schools in the country - Stanford, University of Chicago, the Ivy Leagues - but instead chose to spend a hot summer day sinking beneath the waves of the Chesapeake Bay as their cardboard boats slowly turned to mush.

They are this year's crop of Meyerhoff Scholars, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County program that aims to increase the number of minorities in the sciences.

The program has attracted national attention for getting its students through four years in these tough majors and on to top graduate schools.

"The Meyerhoff program is generally viewed by knowledgeable scientists and educators as the most successful effort at bringing underrepresented minority students into science," says Harold Varmus, who left as director of the National Institutes of Health this year to take over the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute in New York.

"It should be the model used all around the country to address one of the most critical issues in our scientific work force."

Many say its success starts on days like this, weeks before first-semester classes begin, when these 45 students trek to Sandy Point State Park to learn a few lessons about physics and a lot about each other.

It's a combination designed to bind them into a community that will provide support for the next four years.

Jamaica Wood, a Western High School graduate, decided on UMBC over Stanford and is sure she made the right choice. "I already know I have 44 other people I can turn to at any point in my life," she says.

Called Summer Bridge, the six-week program is something like the Naval Academy's Plebe Summer for the Meyerhoff Scholars.

They do everything together - live in one dorm, go to all classes, eat all meals - on time and on schedule.

They take math and black history classes for credit, as well as noncredit science laboratories.

They travel together to scientific institutes and baseball games.

"They only have one TV in that dorm so they even watch TV together," says Julian Wilder, a Meyerhoff Scholar who just graduated from UMBC and is a counselor in the program this summer.

"The friends I made during my first summer supported me for all four years," says Wilder, who will enter an M.D.-Ph.D program at Duke University in the fall.

Sandy Point was the site of the program's third annual Physics Olympics.

The scholars were divided into seven teams and given several assignments - write and perform a song and a cheer, make a device to catch a thrown egg without breaking it, construct a catapult to launch a pingpong ball, and build a boat out of cardboard that will support three team members out in the bay.

Collecting their materials - rubber bands, paper towel tubes, paper clips, straws, masking tape, paper, and those three big sheets of corrugated cardboard - the students went to work with the earnestness usually reserved for 10-year-olds at day camp.

There wasn't a hint of the cynicism that might be expected from 18-year-olds who were, in many cases, about to make fools of themselves.

Justin Brooks was skeptical when he arrived at UMBC, a bit angry that his father had made him turn down a $25,000-per-year scholarship to the University of Chicago for this.

"I didn't like it when I got here," says Brooks. "I wanted to go to Chicago. But my father said I would get more support here. Now I see what it's all about."

Brooks says that as one of the few blacks in his classes at a private school in Norfolk, Va., he was accustomed to working alone and planned to keep it that way. After three weeks of Summer Bridge, he sees the benefits of a supportive community.

"It's nice being around people from so many different ethnic groups who have accomplished as much or, in most cases, more than me," Brooks says.

This was exactly the model UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III had in mind when he created the Meyerhoff Scholars in 1986 with a grant from Robert and Jane Meyerhoff, who were concerned about achievement among black males.

The program, which gives out full and partial scholarships, was originally limited to black males, though it soon opened to women and, four years ago, to members of all races who support its goals. It remains predominantly African-American.

Hrabowski had wondered since fifth grade why his fellow black students were not as good at mathematics as he was, had wondered while in graduate math courses at the University of Illinois why he was the only African-American in the class.

Seeing that less than 1 percent of math and science doctorates were going to African-Americans, Hrabowski saw it as a vicious circle: Without blacks in the top echelons of math and science, black students did not believe they could achieve in those areas.

The Meyerhoff program was designed to break that cycle.

Though some, including Morgan State University President Earl Richardson, have criticized the Meyerhoff program for supporting only elite students instead of spreading its money further on the basis of need, Hrabowski says these top students are the ones who are going to change the complexion of the highest levels of the scientific communities in this country, a change that will resonate throughout academia.

The key, according to Hrabowski, is convincing these high-achieving students that they cannot go it alone as they did in high school, that to make it in the sciences at this level, you need to help one another out.

That builds another, supportive cycle - when your peers are succeeding in these tough majors, you decide that you can, too.

"It is critical that students understand early the difference between high school and the university in terms of expectations, of testing, the level of autonomy and study requirements," Hrabowski says.

"It is most important that they come to appreciate the importance of working in groups, learning to support and rely on each other."

That appreciation starts during Summer Bridge. With its tight structure, the students - like the Naval Academy plebes - learn to do what they are told, finding out in the process that they can work harder than they thought they could.

"There's structure on the one hand, and on the other hand, there's teaching them to think independently and creatively," says Hrabowski. "By the time they graduate, they know how to follow directions, and they know how to lead."

The structure was evident at Sandy Point.

The assignments were handed out and, with no questions asked, the students got down to work. But there was creativity, too, in the various ways the teams carried out those assignments.

Pingpong launchers ranged from simple slingshots to complex crossbows. Boats included tipsy canoes, flat-bottomed skiffs, even a pair of heavily taped pontoons supporting cardboard-clad swimmers.

And the support network formed when these 45 students sang silly songs in front of each other and got nothing but cheers, when they nervously watched the flight of an egg through the sky as it headed for the member of their team trying to catch it in a paper-and-drinking-straw mitt, when they got in their painstakingly constructed boats and watched them sink within seconds and laughed with glee.

One boat actually remained afloat for more than a few moments, made it all the way out to physics teacher Tim Durkin standing waist-deep in the bay and much of the way back before succumbing.

Everyone seemed to take delight in its success.

When the victorious team emerged from the water, they broke into their chant, a spontaneous burst of pride.

Hrabowski says such team-building pays off - he has statistics showing that more than 90 percent of Meyerhoff Scholars graduate with majors in math or science, while only about half of those who turned down a Meyerhoff and went to other schools maintain those majors.

"The Meyerhoff program provides an inspirational model for the whole country," says Thomas Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, who has had several Meyerhoff Scholars work in his laboratory.

"If one can create an atmosphere where it's cool to be smart, to have high academic aspirations, then the sky's the limit."

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