Published: July 26, 2006

A growing program at the University of Colorado at Boulder is working to combat an impending crisis brought on by a shrinking pool of new K-12 science teachers.

Known as the Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics-Teacher Preparation project, it involves a collaboration between the School of Education and six campus science departments.

By employing undergraduate students as “learning assistants,” the program aims to both improve introductory math and science classes and recruit and train future K-12 science teachers, according to Valerie Otero, director of the program and an assistant professor in CU-Boulder’s School of Education.

“It’s well known that the United States is experiencing a crisis in mathematics and science education,” Otero said. “There’s a shortage of teachers, especially in physics, chemistry and math.

In fact, in physics two out of three teachers who are teaching physics do not have a degree in physics.”

The CU-Boulder program, which is being supported by a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, is highlighted in the July 28 edition of the journal Science.

American research institutions are among the top in the world, and yet are failing to attract and produce highly qualified teachers in the sciences, according to Otero.

“We looked at the issue and realized that part of the problem is that we weren’t trying hard enough,” Otero said. “There also is a stigma in many science departments that if you’re one of the top students in the field, teaching is not what you go into. We feel teaching is what you should go into, because if we’re producing top scientists, we should also be producing top science teachers.”

Emeritus Professor Richard McCray of CU-Boulder’s astrophysical and planetary sciences department started the program in 2003 as a way to make large undergraduate lectures more student centered and interactive.

“We soon discovered that not only did this make the classes better, but it also was a great educational experience for the learning assistants,” said McCray, who is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a CU Distinguished Professor. “Then we realized that this was a wonderful way to recruit undergraduates into teaching.”

Each semester about 50 undergraduate learning assistants are hired to help science faculty in six departments make changes to their large undergraduate courses. One thing they do is break the large classes -- some have more than 200 students -- into smaller learning teams, each led by a learning assistant. The teams meet at least once a week to work on group problems and other activities.

The learning assistants also meet with faculty members to plan for future classes and to talk about how each class is going. They also are required to take a two-credit course on mathematics and science education taught by School of Education faculty and K-12 teachers. The class gives them teaching guidance and helps with tips on different teaching techniques.

“The exciting thing about this program is that the undergraduate learning assistants are the pool from which we recruit new teachers,” said Otero. “It also couples teacher preparation with course transformation, and it provides the mechanism for collaboration among science and math faculty and education faculty.”

The program appears to be working, Otero said. To date, 125 math and science majors have participated as learning assistants and 18 have joined teacher certificate programs.

Most of the learning assistants who decided to become teachers report that they had not explored teaching as a career until participating in the program. They also said the program helped them view teaching as intellectually challenging and that positive attitudes of faculty members also was a determining factor, she said.

“Everybody has to recognize that they are partially responsible for preparing these students to become teachers,” Otero said. “We particularly want scientists to recognize the enormous responsibility they have in shaping how these students view education and that they too can recruit teachers.”