IN THE SPOTLIGHT
CU-Boulder program helps inspire science and math education initiative
After Annie Venturo decided to study applied mathematics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, in loomed another big question. “I was still searching for what I wanted to do after college,” she said.
While the solutions to most of Venturo’s questions lie in textbooks, this time she turned to something else for an answer: CU’s Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) Teacher Preparation program. The nationally recognized program aims to attract some of the university’s top science and math students into the world of teaching and prepare them for careers in K-12 education. CU established the program in order to address what many call a critical shortage of new teachers in the sciences.
As a sophomore, Venturo applied for and earned a learning assistant position – one of the STEM program’s cornerstones – for a Calculus I course. “I fell in love with it, and it was an eye-opener for me,” she said. “It’s nice to make stronger connections with students and professors and to become more involved in classes.”
The following semester, CU’s School of Education accepted Venturo into its teacher licensure program. Now a senior, the Noyce Fellow program will graduate in May and student-teach at Louisville’s Monarch High School in the fall. “I’ve never been happier,” Venturo said. “I really enjoy working with students, and I also get to work with my passion every day. It’s the best of both worlds.”
Since its inception in 2003, the Colorado STEM program has blossomed into one of CU’s signature programs, said Director Valerie Otero, an associate professor in CU-Boulder's School of Education.
The STEM Learning Assistant model currently hires 75 undergraduates each semester, and the number of applicants continues to increase. Learning assistants work closely with faculty to plan classes, as well as facilitate small-group interaction in large-enrollment courses.
The experiential learning program not only provides learning assistants with teaching guidance, it is also helping transform the introductory courses by encouraging more student engagement in the classroom, Otero said. “The focus of this program is learning, and it emphasizes active participation, rather than passive receiving,” she said. “It really enhances the way students get an education at CU.”
In addition to the School of Education, the program provides learning assistants for classes across eight departments, including physics, astronomy and molecular, cellular and developmental biology. The program works with nearly 50 faculty members, and the efforts impact more than 8,000 students, Otero said. The learning assistants also make up the pool from which the School of Education recruits students for its CU-Teach certification program.
Another critical component is the discipline-based education research, which allows the program to analyze its impacts and potential by “asking very sophisticated questions about the learning process,” Otero said. The research furthers the program’s goals of better preparing learning assistants for teaching careers, enhancing teaching practices at the university, and improving science and math education for all undergraduates.
The efforts and success of the Colorado STEM program and its Learning Assistant model are recognized nationwide, as institutions around the country look to implement similar programs. To date eight universities have worked to replicate the CU program. Various program leaders at CU, including Otero, as well as associate professors of physic Steven Pollock and Noah Finkelstein, have presented their science education research throughout the nation.
In recognition of the University of Colorado’s leadership, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities will hold its first Science and Mathematics Teacher Imperative (SMTI) conference on the Boulder campus May 17 through 20. Participants will include SMTI leaders, university administrators and politicians from around the nation.
It’s clear that math and science education coupled with teacher preparation is becoming a national priority, Finkelstein said. “This is a fundamental investment in the country’s future, and it also supports our core identity and mission as a university. Because of the work of the university and other institutions within the state, Colorado can be considered a leading candidate for pushing the sorts of national initiatives that are necessary.
“If you want to be a leading educator, whether you’re a current or future faculty member or teacher, CU is definitely the place to be in order to get a world-class education,” Finkelstein said.
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