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 Tuesday, October 9, 2007 IssueFaculty/Staff E-Newsletter


CU-Boulder program working to draw more science majors to teaching
by Greg Swenson, News Services

CU-Boulder is a nationally recognized leader in science research and education. However, like many universities across the country, the majority of CU's science graduates go on to pursue careers in areas other than education, a continuing trend that spells trouble for America's schools.

A growing program at CU-Boulder called the Colorado Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) Learning Assistant project is working to combat what many experts call a growing crisis brought on by a shrinking pool of new K-12 science teachers. Over the past couple of years, the program has received national attention.

Supported by a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, funding from the American Physical Society's PhysTEC program, the CU-Boulder administration and a $120,000 private donation, the STEM Colorado Learning Assistant project's main goals are to both improve introductory math and science classes at the university and recruit and train future K-12 science teachers, according to Valerie Otero, director of the program and an assistant professor in CU-Boulder's School of Education.

Later this month approximately 20 physics faculty from nine universities throughout the nation, including Cornell University, University of Maryland and the University of Minnesota, will visit CU-Boulder to attend a Learning Assistant workshop so they can implement similar programs at their universities. The workshop is supported by the American Physical Society and will be headed by Otero and her colleagues Noah Finkelstein and Steven Pollock from the CU-Boulder physics department.

Otero says there is a critical shortage of new teachers in the sciences, especially in physics, chemistry and math. In fact, she says two out of three K-12 physics teachers who are teaching physics don't have a degree in physics. To help change this, Otero and colleagues from several campus science departments and the School of Education are successfully attracting some of the top science and math students into the world of teaching.

Each semester about 60 undergraduate learning assistants are hired to help science faculty in six departments make changes to their large undergraduate courses. One thing they do is break the large classes – some have more than 500 students – into smaller learning teams, each led by a learning assistant. The teams meet at least once a week to work on group problems and other activities.

The learning assistants also meet with faculty members to plan for future classes and to talk about how each class is going. They are required to take a 2-credit course on mathematics and science education taught by School of Education faculty and K-12 teachers, which gives them teaching guidance and helps with tips on different teaching techniques.

"The exciting thing about this program is that the undergraduate learning assistants are the pool from which we recruit new teachers," Otero said. "It also couples teacher preparation with course transformation, and it provides the mechanism for collaboration among science and math faculty and education faculty."

The program appears to be working. To date 255 math and science majors have participated as learning assistants and 28 have joined teacher certificate programs.

"Most of these students did not consider teaching as a career until they participated as a learning assistant," Otero said.

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