CUTeach co-director Valerie Otero works with student Learning Assistants

After years breaking down the often impenetrable walls between colleges and departments in academia, the University of Colorado is finally getting attention for its comprehensive and groundbreaking efforts to recruit future teachers in math, science, technology and engineering.

An array of quieter honors culminated recently with CU-Boulder Chancellor Phil DiStefano shaking hands with President Obama in the White House during an event aimed at letting the president know what universities are doing to address the national shortage of science and math teachers. CU was among the 41 public research institutions that pledged to double the number of teacher recruits in these hard-to-fill areas by 2015.

“We are fast on the train to teacher recruitment, preparation and support – particularly at the K-12 level,” said Noah Finkelstein, an associate professor of physics and one of the directors of the university’s iSTEM (Integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math Education) program. “We believe we’re just at the beginning of establishing CU-Boulder, in particular, as a national hub for STEM education.”

Nationwide, the goal is for 121 public research universities to increase the number of new science and math teachers to more than 10,000 annually by 2015, meaning there will be an additional 7,500 new teachers pumped out of the schools over the next five years. For CU, it means doubling the 28 STEM graduates who now qualify each year for teacher licensure in math or science.

Rising above the storm

Finkelstein said CU’s initiatives stem from a 2007 report called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” in which The National Academies argued that the U.S.’s weak standing in science and engineering would “degrade its social and economic conditions and in particular erode the ability of its citizens to compete for high-quality jobs.”

The report’s top recommendation was to improve K-12 science and math education. The ambitious goal was to recruit 10,000 science and math teachers every year to educate 10 million students. CU jumped to meet the challenge.

According to a news release issued by the Science and Mathematics Teacher Imperative, an agenda sponsored by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), CU-Boulder “stands alone in the breadth of its integrated campus-wide STEM initiatives that transform the way undergraduate courses are taught.”

As another symbol of its growing eminence in the field, CU was selected to host the APLU’s Science and Math Teacher Imperative’s inaugural conference last spring.

The overarching goal is simple, said Michael Klymkowsky, a professor in molecular, cellular and developmental biology and co-director of CU Teach, a program created to allow students pursuing STEM subject areas to attain a degree and a teaching certificate in four years.

“We want to recruit people early in their career so they see teaching as a positive thing rather than a fallback position,” Klymkowsky said.

Achieving the goal is not so simple, but CU has several programs underway that complement one another, and campus leaders are seeing results.

A coveted program

For starters, CU-Boulder was one of 13 teacher education programs in the nation to be awarded a grant in 2007 by the National Math and Science Initiative to model its CUTeach program after the nationally known UTeach program.

CUTeach represents innovative collaboration between the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Education. The program allows math and science students to earn a degree in a math or science major and simultaneously pick up a secondary math or science Colorado teaching license without forcing the student to stay in school longer than necessary.

The first CUTeach course taken by freshmen and sophomores gets them into real elementary school classrooms to see if they like teaching. The second phase of the program places CU students in middle school classrooms. Presently, 170 students are enrolled in CUTeach. And a brand new CUTeach program is also under way on CU’s Colorado Springs campus.

“The thing that makes CUTeach different from other teacher education programs is that we place teacher recruits into the classrooms of real teachers,” said program co-director Valerie Otero. “Those teachers play a real role in the teacher preparation of our students.”

Another program that has garnered attention nationwide is CU’s Learning Assistants program, which has been around since 2003.

Forget TAs, try LAs

The innovative program places selected Learning Assistants from STEM majors into large, introductory (often dull) STEM courses. The Learning Assistants evaluate how well students are learning the material – based upon pedagogy learned through education courses. They help struggling students overcome their barriers to learning through small group activities.

The program has now been emulated at 13 other institutions, including Cornell University.

LAs – sometimes six or more in one lecture class – are assigned to 35 courses covering topics in chemistry, physics, astrophysical and planetary sciences, molecular, cellular and development biology, mathematics and applied mathematics.

The LAs meet weekly with faculty to plan for the upcoming week, reflect on the previous week, and analyze assessment data. They facilitate collaboration among learning teams by assessing student understanding and asking guiding questions. They attend a special Mathematics and Science Education seminar where they reflect on their own teaching and learning and make connections to relevant education literature.

Otero said “teaching leads to learning” and that the undergraduate LAs are often confused with doctoral candidates because of their breadth of knowledge and ability to defend concepts.

“Learning is embodied in the experience of serving as a Learning Assistant,” Otero said.

The program was launched with a National Science Foundation grant but is now covered by funds from various university units, including the provost and deans of engineering, arts and sciences and education.

CU science teaching fellow Laurie Langdon, who works with the LA program, said synergy is building between CUTeach and the LA program. A growing number of LA applicants have participated in CUTeach and know they want to become teachers.

“Hiring LAs has evolved a bit from being totally focused on trying to recruit students who might not otherwise consider teaching as a career to one in which we’re balancing recruitment with support of students who have made decisions to go into teaching,” Langdon said. “It is very exciting to see such a critical mass of future STEM teachers build up over the last several years, and I don’t see it slowing down yet.”

Senior Cassandra Ly, 21, is one student who had an inkling she’d want to teach even though she started at CU on a pre-med track. Working as an LA for two great faculty members, including the Nobel Prize winning chemist Tom Cech, sealed the deal. She graduates this spring with the goal of becoming a middle school science teacher in her home district, Adams 12.

As for the national shortage of math and science teachers, Ly said many of her friends and peers aren’t so interested in science because it’s “one of hardest things to learn.” She said the quality of teaching isn’t always great, although she sees that beginning to change as professors seek to understand what makes students tick.

“A lot of professors put an emphasis on research vs. teaching,” Ly said.

Other CU programs

A few other programs are putting CU on the STEM map.

Distinguished Professor and Nobel laureate Carl Wieman launched the Physics Education Technology project, or PhET, at CU in 2002. The globally renowned education tool uses interactive web-based simulations for physics instruction.

In 2009, CU-Boulder was awarded one of only six NSF Innovation Through Institutional Integration grants to build a Center for STEM education, designed to further establish CU as a national hub of STEM education research and reform.

All told, more than $30 million in grants are funneled toward the many STEM endeavors at CU.

Through its programs, the Boulder campus has increased the number of STEM majors completing secondary math and science teacher certification from an average of six per year a decade ago to 13 today. The number of physics and chemistry majors enrolling in teacher certification has more than tripled in the past three years.

Finkelstein said there were only five physics majors statewide enrolled in teacher certification programs seven years ago. Now, CU recruits that many every year.

The big picture

Few would deny the inherent importance of having well-trained scientists, engineers and mathematicians in the nation’s classrooms. Obama has pointed out the fact that American 15-year-olds now rank 21st in science and 25th in math when compared their peers around the world.

A study by the National Math and Science Initiative found that about 30 percent of high school math students and 60 percent of those enrolled in physical science classes had teachers who did not major in the subject or were not certified to teach it.

Finkelstein cited one study showing that two of three high school physics teachers have neither a major nor minor in physics.

However, the root of the problem may not be an inadequate number of STEM graduates with teaching certificates, but rather a steady drain of qualified teachers from the nation’s schools, according to a study cited by Education Week last spring.

Richard M. Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, admitted being “heretical” when he released his finding that colleges and universities are producing 2½ times more math and science teachers than schools require to replace those who are retiring. Ingersoll said policymakers ought to focus on retaining the much larger pool of science and math teachers who are already in schools.

Otero, a professor in the School of Education, said there are programs addressing that side of the issue as well.

Broadly speaking, there may not be a crushing demand for more scientists or mathematicians, but there is a need for an educated populace, said CUTeach co-director Klymkowsky, noting that an under-educated public leads to bad public policy on important issues, such as climate change.

Klymkowsky, who inhabits a cluttered office strung with holiday lights and all manner of biological images and artifacts, said we live in an era when “politicians can say really stupid things scientifically, and not be labeled stupid, ignorant people.” Klymkowsky said he would like to see that trend reversed.

“There is a lack of understanding about how science works,” he said. “We’re not trying to generate more scientists, we’re trying to create a population that gets the value of science.”

He blames the present state of scientific illiteracy on entrenched systems that serve to eliminate those with a passing interest in science but who may not want to become career scientists or professors.

“Our system is so designed to sort people – who wants to go to this school or that school  – when the important thing is, can you understand basic ideas of science? Literacy has to do with how people think, not just the recitation of stupid facts.”

Others at CU, though, including Finkelstein, believe the U.S. will need more highly skilled scientists, mathematicians and engineers down the line. While the university’s STEM initiatives are critical to address the national teacher shortage, they’re also vital to the nation’s economic health.

“Our economy is driven by science and technology,” Finkelstein said. “Eighty-percent of jobs that are going to exist in five to 10 years haven’t been created yet. We need to create people who know how to use technology and learn on the job.”

CU Learning Assistant Program stats

  • 27 former LAs are now working as teachers
  • 25 former LAs who were recruited to teaching careers are either finishing teacher certification requirements or have decided not to teach
  • About 85 Learning Assistants are hired each semester
  • Each assistant costs $3,000 per year
  • 444 STEM majors have participated in the program
  • 8,000 STEM students per year demonstrate a higher level of learning due to LAs having been in their large, introductory courses
  • 15 percent of LAs – representing the top students – are recruited to become teachers
  • LAs are paid $1,500 per semester to work about 10 hours per week
  • LAs who decide to pursue a K-12 teaching license are eligible for a $6,000 to $10,000 Hach or Noyce scholarship