How CU helps boost U.S. competitive edge

Dean Pic

By Steven R. Leigh

Educational innovation is core to CU-Boulder’s mission. Recent years have seen particularly rapid changes in education in the so-called STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). In fact, the American Association of Universities (AAU), a consortium of the top U.S. research universities, has recently recognized STEM’s importance by supporting an initiative across eight of its member universities to advance STEM teaching and learning. CU-Boulder is a key part of this initiative. Together, this partnership will help transform teaching in these fields.

Revitalized interest in STEM education can be traced directly to the realization that education is critical to national security. A primary driver of efforts in STEM education was a 2001 report by the U.S. Commission on National Security. That report found that U.S. education was beginning to lag behind other countries’ education, ultimately posing significant and multifaceted threats to national security. In 2007, the National Academies released a report called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” which reinforced the view of the Security Commission. The National Academies further specified social and economic costs associated with ineffective education in these critical fields.

Major advances in STEM education at CU-Boulder have been catalyzed by two of our most accomplished professors, Nobel Prize winners Carl Wieman (physics) and Thomas Cech (chemistry and biochemistry). Their leadership inspired broad efforts across the campus to advance STEM education. The response across our campus—primarily in the Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Engineering and Education—has been remarkable. Systematic efforts, pioneered by our Department of Physics in partnership with other units, have yielded national leadership in STEM education. Recognized leaders in the field include Carnegie Foundation Professor of the Year Steven Pollock and Noah Finkelstein, both accomplished physicists. The Physics Education Research Group and the Center for STEM Learning (both directed by Finkelstein) represent CU-Boulder’s efforts to increase research on teaching and promote new pedagogical approaches. These groups have made significant advances in understanding how we can improve teaching and learning, not just in STEM fields, but also across our campus.

Several additional efforts dedicated to transforming education are occurring on our campus. For example, CU-Boulder’s Learning Assistant program, a partnership between departments and the College of Education, is now entering its second decade. This program deploys talented undergraduate peers to help students learn across our campus, especially in STEM courses. The program, initiated by Professor Emeritus Richard McCray (astrophysical and planetary sciences), is designed to recruit and train K-12 teachers while enhancing the success of CU-Boulder undergraduates in courses that employ learning assistants.

Yet another program, CU Teach, co-directed by molecular biologist Michael Klymkowsky and Valerie Otero (College of Education), further enhances STEM and undergraduate education on our campus. CU Teach is an innovative secondary math and science teacher-education program. It was one of the first 13 teacher-education programs in the United States awarded a grant by the National Math and Science Initiative to model their program after UTeach, a highly successful math and science teacher preparation program at the University of Texas at Austin. CU Teach is a four-year program that leads to a degree in mathematics or sciences and a Colorado teaching license. Colorado’s schools are well served by these graduates, who bring advanced training in mathematics and sciences directly to K-12 classrooms.

Many of our STEM efforts are supported by innovative and dynamic interactive science software known as PhET Interactive Simulations (it’s free, so readers should feel free to download simulations of interest). Founded by Carl Wieman, PhET provides ways for young students to learn sciences. PhET has moved beyond its roots in physics to include interactive and research-based simulations in biology, chemistry, earth sciences and mathematics. The project now includes scores of scientifically rigorous simulations that aid students at all curricular levels, from pre-K to graduate school and into continuing education. PhET, now directed by Kathy Perkins, has dedicated users worldwide, with incalculable benefits for students and their families, especially in areas of the world with limited educational resources. PhET simulations offer “laboratories” to impoverished areas, benefitting students globally. The simulations are challenging, fun and, as noted, free (learn more at

The remarkable dedication of CU-Boulder faculty to undergraduate education is partly responsible for major transformations in our college in recent years, including record numbers of physics majors. Currently, about 85 percent of Arts and Sciences students major in either natural or social sciences. New efforts by our faculty have attracted the arts and humanities in a transformative effort to broaden STEM education. This has generated a new acronym, STEAM—the “A” stands for arts and humanities—and it will incorporate these fields in the training of the next generation of scientists and science teachers.

Steven R. Leigh is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.

June 30, 2014