Innovative programs transform undergraduate STEM courses

April 19, 2013 •

Caleb Ulliman’s father is an engineer and for a long time he thought he would become an engineer too, but that was before he took a 1-credit CU Teach course.

“One thing led to another, and all of a sudden I was headed down the path toward becoming a teacher,” he said. “That’s the case for a lot of people in CU Teach.”

CU Teach is an innovative secondary math and science teacher education program that recruits exceptional math and science majors to earn a teaching license in tandem with the Colorado Learning Assistant Program. Learning Assistants are talented undergraduates who work alongside faculty teaching STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — to help transform undergraduate STEM courses at the University of Colorado Boulder. As many Learning Assistants move on to CU Teach, they work with teachers and students in local K-12 schools.

“That is what I love about this program; the students actually experience teaching instead of the perception of teaching,” said Julie Andrew, a CU Teach Master Teacher, which designates a School of Education faculty member who is a veteran teacher of grades 6-12. “This process is much like teaching. Students learn as they go, it’s step by step, and it’s experiential. And really that is how we learn science.”

With Andrew’s guidance, Ulliman and CU Teach classmates introduced the chemistry of tie-dye to middle school students in workshops earlier this semester. Wearing tie-dyed CU Teach T-shirts that read: “We’re dying to teach you science and math,” the CU students challenged the young participants to determine what chemical compounds and geometric designs make the colorful craft possible.

Led by faculty in the School of Education and the College of Arts and Sciences, CU Teach and the Learning Assistant program provide discipline-specific education and public school co-teaching experiences for students. They also help future teachers understand the nuances of teaching science and math while they are engaged in upper-level science and math courses at CU-Boulder.

The concept has been a big hit with donors such as CU Professor Emeritus Richard McCray, the Anschutz Foundation and the United Launch Alliance. These and others (mostly first-time School of Education donors) gave $880,000 within 16 months to endow the CU Teach program — triggering $880,000 more in National Math and Science Initiative matching funds being disbursed to the program in April.

CU Teach is co-directed by Michael Klymkowsky, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, and Valerie Otero, associate professor of physics education research. Otero said the value of the techniques exemplified in the tie-dye activity for integrating scientific content is supported by research. Such activities, along with projects that engage CU Teach students in scientific processes, are ingrained in CU Teach.

“We’re able to demonstrate that K-12 teachers who had the Learning Assistant and CU Teach experience as undergraduates are engaging in more evidence-based teaching practices than their colleagues who did not have these experiences,” Otero said. “Their students are articulating their ideas and making claims and supporting them with evidence. Students are identifying scientific principles from their observations and challenging one another more than they would in a traditional classroom.”

Otero, who was recently named the American Physical Society’s Woman Physicist of the Month, helped establish CU-Boulder’s CU Teach program in 2008 as an extension of the internationally emulated Colorado Learning Assistant program. Since their inception, CU Teach and the Colorado Learning Assistant program have increased the number of graduates interested in math and science education, and the majority of graduates stay in Colorado, often to teach in high-needs schools.

“In the past, we didn’t get a lot of teachers from majors such as applied math, physics, molecular biology and astronomy, but now we do,” Otero said. “Most of our students end up in high-needs districts as full-time teachers because of the CU Teach commitment to equity and access.”

CU Teach and the Learning Assistant program address national shortages in STEM education, and the programs aid national goals of training 100,000 highly qualified STEM teachers over the next decade.

Ulliman is majoring in biochemistry and will teach high school chemistry in Longmont next fall as a student teacher. He is excited to be part of the next generation of STEM teachers, and he credits his determination to the in-class experiences and supportive community of CU Teach teacher mentors.

In CU Teach, students and graduates are part of a lasting continuum of educators who receive support from Mentor Teachers in the local schools and experienced Master Teachers in the School of Education.

“If it weren’t for the Master Teachers, I would not be going down this path, and I am very happy that I am,” Ulliman said.

This story originally appeared on the Outreach and Engagement website.