Education emergency’s first responders

As the ‘gathering storm’ in science and math education approaches ‘Category 5’ and imperils American competitiveness, CU students rush in

By Clint Talbott

Ryan O’Block had been considering a career in K-12 teaching since high school, but when he signed up to become an undergraduate “learning assistant” in an introductory physics course at the University of Colorado, he expected the experience to be daunting.

He signed up to teach three sections and assumed he’d be exhausted by the end of each day. Instead, “I found myself more energized.”

“A light bulb clicked on for me,” O’Block recalls. “This is what I want to do.”

As a learning assistant, he didn’t deliver monologues or lectures. He would help small groups of students grappling with concepts. “What was energizing about that was these students would be wrestling with their own ideas,” O’Block recalls.

“My job was not to tell them this is the way it is.” His role was akin to leaving a trail of educational bread crumbs.

“It’s kind of a fun game to play. Anybody can sit there with a textbook and say F=ma” (which stands for “the force acting on an object is equal to its mass times its acceleration,” Newton’s second law of motion).

Helping students figure out problems on their own can be more difficult than delivering lectures by rote. It also requires a level of conceptual mastery that many teachers simply lack, statistics show.

O’Block, a good student pursuing a major in physics and a minor in mathematics, is in a program in which he has committed to teaching in a high-needs K-12 school district.

Traditionally, the brightest students in science, math and engineering were shunted away from teaching at the K-12 level. They were told, explicitly or implicitly, that the best scientists and mathematicians should be in higher education or doing private-sector R&D.

It is not that way at CU any more. Here, teaching effectively is recognized as a legitimate, scholarly activity for faculty and their students.

When he was in high school and mentioned his interest in teaching, he saw that bias firsthand.

“I had teachers say, ‘Ryan, don’t go into teaching. You’re too smart,’” O’Block recalls, noting that such statements shocked him. He believes the best and brightest should also teach.

He used to ask: “Why aren’t we recruiting the most gifted people to teach the next generation? Why is teaching looked down upon? Why is it reserved as a backup plan?”

The National Academies have pondered the same questions for years.

As the National Academies note, 93 percent of U.S. public-school students in fifth through eighth grades are taught physical sciences by teachers with no degree in the physical sciences. When teachers don’t really understand the science and math they teach, students won’t, either.

‘Rapidly approaching Category 5’

Noyce Fellow Ryan O’Block works with a middle-school student in Thornton. CU Photo by Casey A. Cass

That is an educational shortcoming. It is also a matter of national concern and, as the National Academies contends, a threat to America’s prosperity. This case is made in a 2010 National Academies report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5,” which noted the lack of progress on U.S. competitiveness investments in the five years since the academies’ last report.

As the National Academies argues, students who are ill-taught science in middle school or high school will be less-prepared for the rigors of higher education—and less likely to realize their full intellectual capacity.

Hence, these ill-prepared students will make comparatively fewer groundbreaking discoveries, secure relatively fewer important patents and ultimately help generate fewer American exports and jobs.

America’s ability to compete in the global economy has deteriorated in the last five years, and it must invest in science education and research—as its global competitors have—to keep from slipping further, the National Academies argued.

O’Block is one of many CU students who take this challenge seriously, accepting scholarships in exchange for a promise to dedicate years of their lives to teach science in high-needs K-12 school districts.

If, as the National Academies argue, this is an emergency, these students and their CU professors are the first responders. The university is their training ground.

O’Block is the recipient of a Noyce Fellowship. Noyce fellows receive  up to $15,000 per year. They must teach for two years in a K-12 high-needs school district for each year of scholarship they receive.

The Noyce Scholarship Program, funded by the National Science Foundation, began at CU in 2005, and 51 CU students have become Noyce fellows since then.

To be a Noyce fellow at CU, a student must have already served as an undergraduate “Learning Assistant,” facilitating small-group interaction in large-enrollment courses or participated in CU-Teach courses where CU students work with K-12 students in local science classrooms.

Committed to K-12 teaching

Since 2003, CU’s nationally emulated LA Program has been enhancing large-enrollment science courses for three purposes: 1) to recruit and prepare talented K-12 science teachers, 2) to encourage faculty to participate in the preparation of future science teachers and, 3) to improve science education for all students.

The LA Program has transformed more than 35 courses. CU hires about 180 learning assistants per year and it costs about $3,000 per year per LA, who help teach about 8,000 students annually.

Learning assistants do more than work with other undergraduates toward an understanding of central scientific concepts. In the process of coaching others, LAs learn the material better themselves, which is one factor that helps them become better teachers.

The LA Program administers assessments before and after selected science and math courses. Courses that are supported by LAs score higher—and students learn more—than those not supported by LAs.

Learning assistants themselves score even higher than those they coach. Such data indicate that learning assistants know their stuff, which will help them—and the nation—regardless of whether they become research professors or high-school physics teachers.

Both the LA Program and the Noyce Fellowship Program are part of CU’s ground-breaking work in education and research advancing Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics—or STEM.

It is from the pool of LAs, who have already demonstrated learning and teaching prowess, that most Noyce fellows are picked. While LAs might—and many do—choose to teach in a K-12 school, Noyce fellows promise to teach in a high-needs school district.

Such districts are legion. In Colorado, only one district is not classified as “high needs.”

Noyce fellows at CU are required to engage in disciplined-based research with a science, mathematics or education faculty member. They also work with local K-12 math and science teachers.

The Karate Kid and Mr. Miyagi

Noyce Fellow Hunter Cuchiaro, center, works as a class facilitator in a Northglenn High School physics course. CU Photo by Glenn Asakawa.

Noyce fellow Hunter Cuchiaro did not come to college planning to become a middle-school science teacher. “No,” he emphasizes. “Absolutely not.”

But things changed when the CU student who had been focused on ornithology, theatre and language “happened upon chemistry” and then took an education class.

Cuchiaro acts as a physics class facilitator at Northglenn High School. The teacher is currently employing an LA program herself, in which high school students work with elementary school students to learn science. Cuchario is helping collect data on the effects of this program. “My role is I’m the Karate Kid, and she’s Mr. Miyagi,” Cuchiaro quips.

Good teaching is not only cognizant of the concepts and how to bring content alive, Cuchiaro says, “It’s also a matter of engaging with students as people.”

And those people don’t always see the value of science and math. K-12 science and math teachers are sometimes asked a tough question. “Why do I need to learn this if I’m not going to be a scientist?”

Not wanting to give a half-formed response, Cuchiaro says, “My first response will be, ‘I need to think about that.’”

It’s not that the student is saying, “This is stupid.” The student might be asking for a reason to learn science and math. The student might be telling the teacher, in essence, “You’re not making this relevant.”

To meet that challenge, Cuchiaro might return to class the next day and say, “If your interests lie somewhere else, this is how it applies. I would try to make it relevant.”

Further, if students don’t see the value of a course, “I need to be aware of the cultural nuances that I’m dealing with.”

He adds: “Going into science might not be for everyone, but thinking through problems and resolving a best approach to your task is for everyone. Regardless of your background or where you end up, your ability to address the world you live in depends on your ethic in overcoming obstacles. You have the tools, and my science classroom will give you the opportunity to practice with them—what will you (the student) decide?”

As Cuchiaro notes, he loves chemistry and loves science. Additionally, “I love the kids. I love the idea that every day you go into a classroom and you’re doing work, but you’re doing it in a creative way … I think it’s a wonderful gift that you could do that as a profession.”

Conveying ‘how cool this is’

Noyce Fellow Sam Sherman says he didn't come to CU planning to be a teacher. He planned to be an engineer. But students inspired him to be a teacher. CU Photo by Noah Larsen.

Sam Sherman is also a Noyce fellow this year. Like Cuchiaro, he didn’t come to CU thinking he’d be a teacher. He liked physics and figured he’d become an engineer, which he thought was a good way to make a living while using physics.

There was just one problem with engineering. “I wasn’t that into it,” Sherman says.

He became a learning assistant and realized that he loved to teach. He also realized that he had much to learn.

“What I thought I knew about physics was not anywhere close to what I ended up learning as a teacher,” Sherman says.

Before becoming a teacher, Sherman tended to view science as a collection of equations and memorizable facts. When he had to teach science, students asked him to explain why it was relevant.

Part of the answer, regardless of the students’ long-term goals, Sherman emphasized, was conveying “how cool this is.” In some science classes, students are given variables such as X, Y and Z and asked to find an answer.

“But the real world is not like that. It doesn’t always give you these nice, little facts that you can plug into it,” Sherman says. Learning science means learning the scientific method, which involves critical-thinking skills that are helpful in any human endeavor.

Sherman recognizes that the National Academies, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and many others see STEM education and research as critical to the nation’s economic competitiveness. But that’s not why he’s going to teach.

“The individual students were what inspired me,” he says. And to those who suggest that good scientists should be in higher education, he adds, “You’re still doing science with students.”

Though he is similarly eager to teach, O’Block harbors no illusions about the life of a teacher. “It’s going to be extremely frustrating,” O’Block says.

“Many teachers go out and think, ‘We’re going to change the world.’ But you have to come to terms with the fact that it’s not going to happen, and especially not in the first couple of years.”

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