CU a leader in preparing STEM teachers

CUTeach co-director Valerie Otero works with student Learning Assistants

After years breaking down the often impenetrable walls between colleges and departments in academia, the University of Colorado is finally getting attention for its comprehensive and groundbreaking efforts to recruit future teachers in math, science, technology and engineering.

An array of quieter honors culminated recently with CU-Boulder Chancellor Phil DiStefano shaking hands with President Obama in the White House during an event aimed at letting the president know what universities are doing to address the national shortage of science and math teachers. CU was among the 41 public research institutions that pledged to double the number of teacher recruits in these hard-to-fill areas by 2015.

“We are fast on the train to teacher recruitment, preparation and support – particularly at the K-12 level,” said Noah Finkelstein, an associate professor of physics and one of the directors of the university’s iSTEM (Integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math Education) program. “We believe we’re just at the beginning of establishing CU-Boulder, in particular, as a national hub for STEM education.”

Nationwide, the goal is for 121 public research universities to increase the number of new science and math teachers to more than 10,000 annually by 2015, meaning there will be an additional 7,500 new teachers pumped out of the schools over the next five years. For CU, it means doubling the 28 STEM graduates who now qualify each year for teacher licensure in math or science.

Rising above the storm

Finkelstein said CU’s initiatives stem from a 2007 report called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” in which The National Academies argued that the U.S.’s weak standing in science and engineering would “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 to improve K-12 science and math education. The ambitious goal was to recruit 10,000 science and math teachers every year to educate 10 million students. CU jumped to meet the challenge.

According to a news release issued by the Science and Mathematics Teacher Imperative, an agenda sponsored by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), CU-Boulder “stands alone in the breadth of its integrated campus-wide STEM initiatives that transform the way undergraduate courses are taught.”

As another symbol of its growing eminence in the field, CU was selected to host the APLU’s Science and Math Teacher Imperative’s inaugural conference last spring.

The overarching goal is simple, said Michael Klymkowsky, a professor in molecular, cellular and developmental biology and co-director of CU Teach, a program created to allow students pursuing STEM subject areas to attain a degree and a teaching certificate in four years.

“We want to recruit people early in their career so they see teaching as a positive thing rather than a fallback position,” Klymkowsky said.

Achieving the goal is not so simple, but CU has several programs underway that complement one another, and campus leaders are seeing results.

A coveted program

For starters, CU-Boulder was one of 13 teacher education programs in the nation to be awarded a grant in 2007 by the National Math and Science Initiative to model its CUTeach program after the nationally known UTeach program.

CUTeach represents innovative collaboration between the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Education. The program allows math and science students to earn a degree in a math or science major and simultaneously pick up a secondary math or science Colorado teaching license without forcing the student to stay in school longer than necessary.

The first CUTeach course taken by freshmen and sophomores gets them into real elementary school classrooms to see if they like teaching. The second phase of the program places CU students in middle school classrooms. Presently, 170 students are enrolled in CUTeach. And a brand new CUTeach program is also under way on CU’s Colorado Springs campus.

“The thing that makes CUTeach different from other teacher education programs is that we place teacher recruits into the classrooms of real teachers,” said program co-director Valerie Otero. “Those teachers play a real role in the teacher preparation of our students.”

Another program that has garnered attention nationwide is CU’s Learning Assistants program, which has been around since 2003.

Forget TAs, try LAs

The innovative program places selected Learning Assistants from STEM majors into large, introductory (often dull) STEM courses. The Learning Assistants evaluate how well students are learning the material – based upon pedagogy learned through education courses. They help struggling students overcome their barriers to learning through small group activities.

The program has now been emulated at 13 other institutions, including Cornell University.

LAs – sometimes six or more in one lecture class – are assigned to 35 courses covering topics in chemistry, physics, astrophysical and planetary sciences, molecular, cellular and development biology, mathematics and applied mathematics.

The LAs meet weekly with faculty to plan for the upcoming week, reflect on the previous week, and analyze assessment data. They facilitate collaboration among learning teams by assessing student understanding and asking guiding questions. They attend a special Mathematics and Science Education seminar where they reflect on their own teaching and learning and make connections to relevant education literature.

Otero said “teaching leads to learning” and that the undergraduate LAs are often confused with doctoral candidates because of their breadth of knowledge and ability to defend concepts.

“Learning is embodied in the experience of serving as a Learning Assistant,” Otero said.

The program was launched with a National Science Foundation grant but is now covered by funds from various university units, including the provost and deans of engineering, arts and sciences and education.

CU science teaching fellow Laurie Langdon, who works with the LA program, said synergy is building between CUTeach and the LA program. A growing number of LA applicants have participated in CUTeach and know they want to become teachers.

“Hiring LAs has evolved a bit from being totally focused on trying to recruit students who might not otherwise consider teaching as a career to one in which we’re balancing recruitment with support of students who have made decisions to go into teaching,” Langdon said. “It is very exciting to see such a critical mass of future STEM teachers build up over the last several years, and I don’t see it slowing down yet.”

Senior Cassandra Ly, 21, is one student who had an inkling she’d want to teach even though she started at CU on a pre-med track. Working as an LA for two great faculty members, including the Nobel Prize winning chemist Tom Cech, sealed the deal. She graduates this spring with the goal of becoming a middle school science teacher in her home district, Adams 12.

As for the national shortage of math and science teachers, Ly said many of her friends and peers aren’t so interested in science because it’s “one of hardest things to learn.” She said the quality of teaching isn’t always great, although she sees that beginning to change as professors seek to understand what makes students tick.

“A lot of professors put an emphasis on research vs. teaching,” Ly said.

Other CU programs

A few other programs are putting CU on the STEM map.

Distinguished Professor and Nobel laureate Carl Wieman launched the Physics Education Technology project, or PhET, at CU in 2002. The globally renowned education tool uses interactive web-based simulations for physics instruction.

In 2009, CU-Boulder was awarded one of only six NSF Innovation Through Institutional Integration grants to build a Center for STEM education, designed to further establish CU as a national hub of STEM education research and reform.

All told, more than $30 million in grants are funneled toward the many STEM endeavors at CU.

Through its programs, the Boulder campus has increased the number of STEM majors completing secondary math and science teacher certification from an average of six per year a decade ago to 13 today. The number of physics and chemistry majors enrolling in teacher certification has more than tripled in the past three years.

Finkelstein said there were only five physics majors statewide enrolled in teacher certification programs seven years ago. Now, CU recruits that many every year.

The big picture

Few would deny the inherent importance of having well-trained scientists, engineers and mathematicians in the nation’s classrooms. Obama has pointed out the fact that American 15-year-olds now rank 21st in science and 25th in math when compared their peers around the world.

A study by the National Math and Science Initiative found that about 30 percent of high school math students and 60 percent of those enrolled in physical science classes had teachers who did not major in the subject or were not certified to teach it.

Finkelstein cited one study showing that two of three high school physics teachers have neither a major nor minor in physics.

However, the root of the problem may not be an inadequate number of STEM graduates with teaching certificates, but rather a steady drain of qualified teachers from the nation’s schools, according to a study cited by Education Week last spring.

Richard M. Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, admitted being “heretical” when he released his finding that colleges and universities are producing 2½ times more math and science teachers than schools require to replace those who are retiring. Ingersoll said policymakers ought to focus on retaining the much larger pool of science and math teachers who are already in schools.

Otero, a professor in the School of Education, said there are programs addressing that side of the issue as well.

Broadly speaking, there may not be a crushing demand for more scientists or mathematicians, but there is a need for an educated populace, said CUTeach co-director Klymkowsky, noting that an under-educated public leads to bad public policy on important issues, such as climate change.

Klymkowsky, who inhabits a cluttered office strung with holiday lights and all manner of biological images and artifacts, said we live in an era when “politicians can say really stupid things scientifically, and not be labeled stupid, ignorant people.” Klymkowsky said he would like to see that trend reversed.

“There is a lack of understanding about how science works,” he said. “We’re not trying to generate more scientists, we’re trying to create a population that gets the value of science.”

He blames the present state of scientific illiteracy on entrenched systems that serve to eliminate those with a passing interest in science but who may not want to become career scientists or professors.

“Our system is so designed to sort people – who wants to go to this school or that school  – when the important thing is, can you understand basic ideas of science? Literacy has to do with how people think, not just the recitation of stupid facts.”

Others at CU, though, including Finkelstein, believe the U.S. will need more highly skilled scientists, mathematicians and engineers down the line. While the university’s STEM initiatives are critical to address the national teacher shortage, they’re also vital to the nation’s economic health.

“Our economy is driven by science and technology,” Finkelstein said. “Eighty-percent of jobs that are going to exist in five to 10 years haven’t been created yet. We need to create people who know how to use technology and learn on the job.”

CU Learning Assistant Program stats

  • 27 former LAs are now working as teachers
  • 25 former LAs who were recruited to teaching careers are either finishing teacher certification requirements or have decided not to teach
  • About 85 Learning Assistants are hired each semester
  • Each assistant costs $3,000 per year
  • 444 STEM majors have participated in the program
  • 8,000 STEM students per year demonstrate a higher level of learning due to LAs having been in their large, introductory courses
  • 15 percent of LAs – representing the top students – are recruited to become teachers
  • LAs are paid $1,500 per semester to work about 10 hours per week
  • LAs who decide to pursue a K-12 teaching license are eligible for a $6,000 to $10,000 Hach or Noyce scholarship

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”