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Zuckerberg family spending millions to replicate UMBC's successful STEM program

UMBC’s underdog basketball team did not pull off another stunning upset this year, but the school’s scientists continue to conquer the STEM world.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, just announced that they will put part of their enormous wealth behind an effort to spread the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s successful STEM honors program to two University of California colleges.

The couple is donating $6.9 million to replicate UMBC’s Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of California, Berkeley, and University of California, San Diego. The Meyerhoff program fuels the recruitment and retention of diverse students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

This is the most recent expansion of UMBC’s influence on STEM education. Penn State and the University of North Carolina began their own Meyerhoff-based programs six years ago. Howard University started one two years ago.

“It is truly thrilling to think about the national and global impact the Meyerhoff Scholars Program will have through partnerships like this,” said Michael Summers, a UMBC chemistry professor who has worked with the California schools and some of the other colleges on their replication efforts. “UC Berkeley and UC San Diego are among the top U.S. producers of undergraduates who go on to earn STEM graduate degrees, and by working together we can help shape the future of our national Ph.D. pipeline, with inclusive excellence as a core shared value of our work.”

UMBC’s Meyerhoff Scholars Program has graduated more than 1,100 STEM students over the last three decades, providing money, academic guidance, research experience, mentoring and a sense of family to underrepresented minorities in a lucrative and highly competitive field.

Graduates of UMBC’s program include the current U.S. surgeon general, research scientists at Google, Intel, the National Institutes of Health, NASA, the NSA, and professors at Harvard, Stanford, Duke, Johns Hopkins and other top universities.

UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski III and Baltimore philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff launched the program in 1988. Hrabowski, a veteran of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 Children’s Crusade, wanted to create a STEM program that would prepare underrepresented students for the nation's most rigorous doctoral programs.

Meyerhoff, who witnessed discrimination while serving in the segregated Navy during World War II, wanted to show that on a level playing field, African American students would perform at least as well as anyone else.

“We proved it many, many times,” Meyerhoff told The Baltimore Sun during its year following students in the program.

The program is a key reason that UMBC, a predominantly white public university, graduates more African American students who go on to earn dual M.D.-Ph.D.s than any other school in the country. It has become a perennial entry in the annual rankings of up-and-coming and best-value colleges, and graduated its first Rhodes scholar last May.

Adrian Davey, one of the Meyerhoff seniors The Sun followed last year, is now at UC Berkeley working toward his Ph.D. in chemical engineering and has been sharing ideas with leadership at Berkeley about what makes Meyerhoff so special. He said one of its most important features is a strong mentorship program, and he plans to mentor incoming students as the program kicks off at Berkeley in Fall 2020.

Being a minority can be particularly isolating in the already challenging STEM fields. African American students earn just 8% of STEM bachelor's degrees, and 5% of STEM doctorates.

The Sun followed Davey and two other seniors last school year to see what about their daily routine made them so successful. For, Davey, a lot of it was the “family” atmosphere and the regular discussions, volunteering and events outside the classroom and understanding how their work would help others.

“We talked about social justice and being a titan in your field,” he said. “For example, Dr. Hrabowski took us as a family to see ‘Hidden Figures’ and we talked about it afterward. Not every other place talks about the societal implications of work.”

Keith Harmon, the Meyerhoff program director, said a big part of their role will be talking to school officials about how to sustain a program through endowments and buy-in with faculty and senior administration to help with the longevity and sustainability of the program.

He said UMBC faculty and staff will be sharing information about how to recruit and advise students, how to prepare students for research opportunities, how to navigate STEM culture and how to develop a close-knit community “in the Meyerhoff way.”

Zuckerberg and Dr. Chan are giving through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which they set up in 2015 as a vehicle to address three core areas of science, education, and justice & opportunity.

crentz@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cdrentz

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