Innovative Program Turns CU Students and Future K-12 Teachers on to Science and Math

December 14, 2009

Sarah Berger eyes a chalkboard crammed with notes on chemistry -- prefixes for carbon chains, functional groups of organic compounds and indications of chirality of molecules.

Students in the University of Colorado at Boulder biochemistry laboratory gaze ahead and are still.

Berger breaks the silence: "Who looks at all these pictures and says, ‘What?' "

Many hands rise.

"This looks a lot more complicated than it is," she says. "I promise."

For several minutes, Berger quizzes students on molecular structure, cis and trans molecules, carboxyl groups and hybridization. She pauses frequently, asking if the students are still with her.

When they are, she beams. "Lovely, lovely," she says. "Beautiful!"

Berger clearly likes teaching and teaches well. But she is neither a faculty member nor a graduate student teaching assistant. She is an undergraduate, 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."

Additionally, she says, graduate teaching assistants and professors have learned so much that they might "glaze over" concepts that students don't understand.

Since 2003, CU's Learning Assistant Program has been enhancing large-enrollment science courses to:

-- Recruit and train talented K-12 science teachers

-- Encourage faculty to recruit future science teachers

-- Improve science education for all undergraduates

CU astrophysicist and Distinguished Professor Richard McCray originally conceived of the 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."

The Learning Assistant program is part of CU's Integrating Science, Technology, Engineering and 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.

Evidence shows CU's initiative is working.

The LA Program has enriched more than 35 courses. CU hires about 80 learning assistants per semester and spends about $3,000 per LA, who help teach about 8,000 students per year.

Valerie Otero, a CU associate professor of education who is the force behind the LA Program and a co-director of the iSTEM program, says this is a bargain. And the impact is significant.

The LA Program employs assessment tests administered before and after selected science and math courses. Science students who are coached by a learning assistant score higher -- and learn more -- than those not coached by LAs. Learning assistants themselves score even higher.

These data indicate that learning assistants know their stuff, which will help them, and the nation, regardless of whether they become research professors or high school physics teachers.

Otero notes that the Learning Assistant Program has been replicated in at least 12 universities nationwide.

Noah Finkelstein, an associate professor of physics and one of the directors of the iSTEM program, underscores the national crisis and notes that iSTEM and its LA Program advance at least three of CU-Boulder's strategic goals: "enhancing education and scholarship," "experiential learning" and "transcending academic boundaries."

In addition to improving faculty engagement and student learning, the LA Program also has encouraged more students to choose K-12 teaching as a career. The program tripled the number of CU students who become certified to teach math and sciences at the secondary level, Otero said.

A case in point is Berger, a native of Winter Park who praises the LA experience. After earning her biochemistry degree, Berger could pursue a career in research. But she intends to teach chemistry at the high school level.

More on this story will appear during the week of Dec. 14 in Colorado Arts & Sciences Magazine at artsandsciences.colorado.edu/magazine.

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