Conference Brings Leading University Adminstrators to CU-Boulder to Focus on Math, Science Teacher Preparation

Published: May 13, 2009

As a physics professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Noah Finkelstein is concerned about the level of education his future students will have when they arrive at CU. And it's not intelligence or the students' study habits he's worried about, it's their teachers.

Across the country, schools from kindergarten to high school are facing a severe lack of qualified science teachers. According to the American Institute of Physics, fewer than 400 physics majors go into K-12 teaching annually when roughly 1,200 are needed.

This lack of qualified teachers is taking its toll because about three out of four high school physics teachers have neither a major or minor in physics, according to Finkelstein.

"It's so important for students to be able to take these classes, quality classes, with qualified teachers," said Finkelstein. "Math and science teacher preparation has been identified at the local, state and national level as a critical--perhaps the most critical--investment in our society."

The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and the Science and Mathematics Teacher Imperative, of which CU-Boulder is a member institution, will hold a major conference at CU-Boulder May 17-20 to address the teacher preparation issue. Provosts, department chairs, and faculty from 65 public and land grant universities will gather in Boulder to discuss how universities throughout the nation can address the significant challenges that face math and science teacher preparation.

Commitment to science and mathematics teacher preparation also has backing from high places outside of the university setting. A National Academies report, commissioned by the U.S. Congress, cites an investment of 10,000 new mathematics and sciences teachers as the top priority to maintain U.S. competitiveness and security in the 21st century.

CU-Boulder was chosen as the site of the conference because it has developed one of the most active, influential, innovative and interdisciplinary Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or STEM, education groups in the country. Funded by a wide array of grants (totaling over $15 million), the STEM Discipline-Based Education Research group includes researchers in mathematics, science and engineering education from 10 disciplinary departments and the School of Education.

The CU efforts focus on three interrelated strands, including improving undergraduate STEM instruction, researching how students learn STEM, and recruiting, preparing and supporting the next generation of STEM teachers, particularly in K-12.

Colorado recently won a National Science Foundation I3 Institutional Innovation through Integration grant to link these efforts. The CU effort, I3 Towards a Center for STEM Education, is led by CU-Boulder Chancellor Phil DiStefano. CU-Boulder also received $1 million from the National Science Foundation to provide scholarships for students who seek to become STEM K-12 teachers.

As a result of successful efforts to recruit new teachers, the new CU-Teach program was recently launched as a collaborative effort between the School of Education and the College of Arts and Sciences to enrich the already successful teacher preparation program at CU.

CU-Boulder's innovation and influence in K-12 teacher preparation has not gone unnoticed. At the conference, CU-Boulder faculty, students and administrators will play leading roles in describing the work that has been carried out at CU-Boulder over the past few years to greatly increase the number of highly qualified STEM K-12 teachers and to improve undergraduate STEM education for all students.

"CU-Boulder is certainly a place to keep your eye on," said Valerie Otero, associate professor in the School of Education. "Even in difficult economic times, CU-Boulder is finding creative ways to continue to rise to the challenge and address the national crises in STEM education."