‘I wanted to do something innovative in education’

Science, math education program is so successful, it’s imitated nationally and described as one of the ‘pillars’ of campus excellence.

By Clint Talbott

Richard McCray, a distinguished professor of astrophysics at the University of Colorado

Richard McCray didn’t need to try to improve science education; a distinguished professor of astrophysics at the University of Colorado, his record in teaching and research was impeccable.

But late in his career, he wanted to improve the curriculum, to help students learn more.

“I came here in 1971, and I’d been lecturing for more than 25 years. I got bored listening to myself saying the same things,” McCray recalls. “I wanted to see if I could do something innovative in education.”

He could and did.

McCray launched a science-education program that helps students in science and math courses learn more than students in traditional courses. Further, it encourages high-performing students to pursue careers as science and math teachers in K-12 schools, where their expertise is desperately needed.

McCray’s idea, which grew into the Learning Assistant Program, now emulated nationally, was born partly from fiscal necessity. The Pew Charitable Trust wanted to support programs to improve undergraduate education, but there was a catch:

He had to transform a course without increasing costs. “I couldn’t make it compute,” he says. “We were already so close to the bone.”

In a course with 150 students, McCray had one Teaching Assistant, a graduate student paid to help instruct the course. One way to make the numbers work was to hire a small number of undergraduates to assist in the transformation of the course. Learning assistants would not replace the graduate Teaching Assistant, but they could increase the teacher-student ratio by quite a bit at a reasonably low cost.

“We called them Learning Assistants because as expert learners they were there to assist students in their learning rather than to assist the teacher with the exposition of content.”

McCray advertised for Learning Assistants; applicants had to have passed the course with an A, have good interpersonal skills, and have “bought into” his proposal.

Once a week, McCray met with the Learning Assistants, who were paid $10 per hour for 10 hours a week. He could hire 10 undergraduate LAs for the price of one graduate TA.

McCray’s transformed course was successful and “the most rewarding experience I’ve had in teaching.” He gained new insight into the students’ experiences, because the LAs “could give me feedback that I could never get from the class itself.”

But the results weren’t precisely what he sought.

At the end of the first educational experiment, McCray measured small but not substantial gains in learning. But he found another effect: Learning Assistants were energized, telling him it was the best experience they’d had as undergraduates. They said that they had become better learners themselves and begun to appreciate the complexity of the teaching profession.

“I realized that this LA experience was a really great way to attract students into education.”

A passion for educational reform

McCray needed a collaborator who knew science and education. He found one in Valerie Otero, now an associate professor of science education in CU’s School of Education.

Otero holds degrees in physics, geophysics, mathematics and science education. She also had something extra: a passionately held desire to improve teaching.

That activism began in middle school, when Otero was dutifully trying to learn the FOIL method (a method of multiplying two binomials) in Algebra II. Otero asked the teacher where a “2” had come from.

The teacher did not answer. Instead, she put her chalk down, marched to the back of the classroom, unlocked a cabinet to retrieve an Algebra I textbook, and then slammed the book down on Otero’s desk.

Valerie Otero, associate professor of science education at the University of Colorado

The teacher’s view was clear: Otero was either disruptive or unclear on remedial concepts. Neither was true.

“I was really genuinely trying to understand,” she says. The teacher’s peevish reaction was “amazing to me,” she says, the teacher’s insult still palpable as Otero describes it.

“It was just another reason that stuff has to change around here” in education, Otero says. “I don’t care what you do, but respect your students. … People love to learn, but nobody loves to sit and listen to people blather on.”

When high-school teachers tell students they “have to learn” course material, Otero says, “that’s just disrespectful.” And ineffective. “They should promote learning as a privilege, as something we want to do because we feel good about ourselves.”

There are at least three problems with K-12 science and math teaching, experts say. One is that traditional teaching methods are failing. Another is that K-12 science and math teachers are often unqualified to teach these subjects (often teaching outside their field of expertise). Finally, those who are qualified and deeply concerned are often undervalued, underestimated, and not recognized for their potential innovative and creative contributions to education. One third to one half of teachers who begin teaching careers leave the profession within 3 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. If teachers don’t really understand the science and math they teach, students won’t, either.

The National Academies and others argue that this shortcoming threatens American economic competitiveness. Students in developing countries out-perform American students in science, math and engineering, and foreign scientists are, in many cases, making more innovative strides than are their American counterparts.

Nuts and bolts of reform

At CU, Otero and McCray agreed that she would teach a course in pedagogy, the process of teaching, to the Learning Assistants.

In 2003, McCray, Otero, Jim Curry of applied mathematics and William Wood of molecular, cellular and developmental biology got a grant from the National Science Foundation for “transforming science and mathematics teacher preparation.” It was the first of several grants that underwrite CU’s cutting-edge efforts to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics education and research—sometimes called STEM education and research.

Emulated at 30 other universities, CU-Boulder’s Learning Assistant Program has worked aggressively since 2003 to recruit and prepare future K-12 math and science teachers, and to improve introductory STEM courses at CU. Each October, faculty from over 30 universities around the nation come to CU for several days to observe Learnining Assistants, consult with CU’s faculty, and gather information so they can implement the program at their universities.

To date, 1058 Learning Assistant positions have been filled at CU, helping to improve introductory courses in 10 departments and to positively impact more than 10,000 CU students each year. Learning Assistants outperform their peers in measures of student learning, and students in Learning Assistant-supported classes show learning gains two to three times that of students in traditional courses.

Despite the success of the LA Program, Otero and McCray describe each transformed class as an experiment. CU’s STEM researchers and educators don’t have all the answers, but they’re still searching via the scientific method.

McCray believes in the program so much that he and his wife donated to it when funding sources were running short.

In so doing, he supported teaching and learning, one of the “Four Pillars” that represent CU’s depth and breadth. The “Four Pillars” concept is used to categorize giving opportunities in the university’s comprehensive, system-wide fundraising effort to enhance CU’s four campuses on all fronts, and advance the economy, culture, and health of Colorado and the nation.

That campaign, called “Creating Futures,” was announced by CU President Bruce Benson in April.

For Otero, McCray is something of a pillar himself. “He’s a visionary, and willing to gamble,” she says. “I am so grateful for his mentoring and partnership when I first started as a new professor at CU Boulder. He provided the type of support and true collaboration that is critical for retaining first-generation college students like me who come from backgrounds that are traditionally underrepresented in science.”

McCray is equally complimentary. “I have a huge amount of confidence in Valerie.”

About the LA Program, McCray adds: “I’m really proud of this.” McCray’s transformational efforts began before the problem had been widely recognized, “and now there’s nationwide awareness that we have a problem.”

To learn more about CU-Boulder’s STEM education and research efforts, see www.colorado.edu/istem. To learn more about giving opportunities in “Creating Futures,” see www.cufund.org/campaign.

In this university video, CU professors and students discuss how and why the Learning Assistant program works so well.

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