CU-Boulder Program Pursues More Engagement in Teaching the STEM Teachers
At the University of Colorado at Boulder, as at so many colleges throughout the country, most students with a drive for natural science and technology pursue degrees, and subsequently careers, in these fields. However, a 2007 report from The National Academies made the case that American students' declining interest in and pursuit of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education will "inevitably degrade its social and economic conditions and in particular erode the ability of its citizens to compete for high-quality jobs."
In other words, there's a bit of a downward spiral in motion. People who are passionate about scientific subjects, and subsequently more likely to inspire passion in others, are not showing interest in teaching these subjects. Those who do pursue education careers, while they may become extremely qualified teachers, are not in large numbers bringing the additional zest for science necessary to drive their future students towards STEM education and careers. The likely result? The next generation will be even less interested in science, and therefore less interested in pursuing related careers or in teaching the subject to others. And the degradation of American students' qualifications will continue until the country is no longer even a major player in the global community of science and technology.
But CU-Boulder has devised the Learning Assistant program in an effort to reverse the spiral. The school launched the LA program in 2003 as a means to recruit and train eager, talented K-12 science teachers, encourage faculty to recruit such teachers, and improve overall undergraduate science education through greater engagement of students. It is a component of the school's iSTEM program, which is the school's five-year initiative to establish itself as a national hub of STEM education reform through STEM teacher preparation and extensive research on STEM education.
Several faculty at the school have come to realize that undergraduate science students possess several unique traits that may make them better facilitators of both education and interest in the sciences. Explained biochemistry learning assistant Sarah Berger, a sophomore biochemistry major, "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." She added that more advanced scientists may tend to "glaze over" concepts that have become second nature after years of study and application but are extremely difficult for science novices to comprehend.
Associate Professor of Education Valerie Otero is the program's current overseer, and she said she has noticed a significant impact, one that empirical data supports. The program assesses students at the beginning and end of selected courses, and those coached by learning assistants consistently score higher. In addition, internal data indicate that the LA program has encouraged significantly more math and science students to pursue careers in teaching.
"These data indicate that learning assistants know their stuff," said a spokesperson, "which will help them, and the nation, regardless of whether they become research professors or high school physics teachers." And, Otero noted, at least 12 other universities have made efforts to replicate the program.
Scott Aronowitz is a freelance writer based in Las Vegas. He has covered the technology, advertising, and entertainment sectors for seven years. He can be reached here.