Innovative CU-Boulder programs are transforming science and math education

Responding to a national crisis, CU-Boulder is putting a fresh face on how science and math courses are taught. One of those faces is Sarah Berger, who likes teaching and teaches well. But she is neither a faculty member nor a graduate-student teaching assistant. She is a sophomore in biochemistry and a learning assistant— or LA.

As she explains, students are comfortable with her because “they know that I don’t have all the answers either, so they don’t feel like I’ll think their questions are silly or dumb.”

Distinguished Professor Richard McCray, a CUBoulder astrophysicist, originally conceived of CU’s Learning Assistant Program in response to pressing national needs. In a 2007 report called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” the national academies argued that America’s faltering standing in science and engineering will “inevitably 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 “vastly improving K–12 science and mathematics education.”

In 2001, the U.S. Commission on National Security-21st Century concluded that American systems of research and education were foundering as other countries’ were improving. “The inadequacies of our systems of research and education pose a greater threat to U.S. national security over the next quarter century than any potential conventional war that we might imagine.”

It could therefore be said that Berger is helping to preserve national security. The LA Program is a piece of a broader effort. The Learning Assistant program is part of CU’s Integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math Education initiative, also known as iSTEM. The iSTEM initiative, which includes the nationally recognized CU Teach program, is jointly supported by the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Education, and the College of Engineering and Applied Science.