Published: Oct. 17, 2007

A growing program at the University of Colorado at Boulder is working to combat what many experts call a looming crisis brought on by a shrinking pool of new K-12 science teachers.

Known as the Colorado Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics Learning Assistant project, its goal is to improve introductory math and science classes at CU-Boulder and to 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.

On Oct. 24-25, three members of the American Physical Society and about 30 professors from 14 universities throughout the nation, including Cornell University, the University of Maryland and University of Minnesota, will visit CU-Boulder to see how they can incorporate similar programs at their schools.

"Hopefully by the time they leave here, they'll have seen firsthand what it takes to run a program like ours," Otero said.

Otero said there is growing awareness of a critical shortage of new teachers in the sciences, especially in physics, chemistry and math. Two out of three K-12 physics teachers who are teaching physics don't have a degree in physics, she said.

To help change this, Otero and colleagues from several CU-Boulder science departments and the School of Education are successfully attracting some of the top science and math students into the world of teaching through the Colorado STEM Learning Assistant program.

Each semester the program hires about 60 undergraduate learning assistants 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 500 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 exciting thing about this program is that the undergraduate learning assistants are the pool from which we recruit new teachers," Otero said. "It also couples teacher preparation with course transformation, and it provides the mechanism for collaboration among science and math faculty and education faculty."

The learning assistants also meet with the faculty members to help plan for future classes and receive teaching guidance and tips through a two-credit course taught by School of Education faculty and K-12 teachers.

A key point for the visitors coming this month is that a successful program must include collaboration from schools and departments on campus and funding to make it happen, according to Otero.

"One of the things we're trying to highlight for the visitors is the features we have in place that we feel have allowed us to continue to gain funding and increase the possibility that our program will be sustainable," she said.

While on campus, participants will attend a teaching and learning seminar designed especially for learning assistants, and a disciplined-based educational research meeting where math and science faculty discuss teaching and the role of learning assistants in their programs. They also will receive a CD with the course curriculum, including daily lesson plans and handouts, and will attend learning assistant-supported classes to see them in action.

"By the time they leave, they will have everything they need to implement a similar program at their school," Otero said.

The Colorado STEM Learning Assistant project is funded by a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, funding from the American Physical Society's PhysTEC program, the CU-Boulder administration and a $120,000 private donation. To date 255 CU-Boulder math and science majors have participated as learning assistants and 28 have joined teacher certificate programs.

The workshop is supported by the American Physical Society's Physics Teacher Education Coalition and will be headed by Otero and her colleagues Noah Finkelstein, Steven Pollock, Mike Klymkowsky from CU-Boulder science departments and Steve Iona, a former high school physics teacher.