Learning Assistant Program At CU-Boulder, CU Denver Gets $3.6 Million Boost

Image Credit: University of Colorado Boulder

Image Credit: University of Colorado Boulder

September 23, 2015 – The National Science Foundation has awarded separate grants of $2.5 million to the University of Colorado Boulder and $1.1 million to the University of Colorado Denver to expand and study the campuses’ Learning Assistant Program.

The program is aimed at increasing student engagement and retention in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) classes, especially among students who are underrepresented in STEM fields.

Under the program, undergraduate learning assistants majoring in STEM subjects become knowledgeable about the latest research in STEM education and how to engage students through active learning. They assist faculty members in course transformation and their fellow undergraduate peers in STEM learning. This often involves facilitating small-group interaction in large enrollment courses.

Learning Assistants are paid a modest stipend of up to $1,500 per semester to work 10 hours per week.

“The Learning Assistant Program helps to provide faculty members with resources to make important changes to their courses to make them more interactive,” said Valerie Otero, professor in the CU-Boulder School of Education and principal investigator of CU-Boulder’s NSF grant proposal. “We want students to be actively involved in creating knowledge rather than just writing down what the instructor says.”

Many of the learning assistants go on to become K-12 teachers deploying key lessons to a younger set of students and inspiring them to consider STEM fields at a time when the nation’s economy needs more STEM professionals, said Otero, who co-founded the Learning Assistant Program with astrophysicist Richard McCray in 2003.

At both CU-Boulder and CU Denver, learning assistants who decide to pursue a K-12 teaching license are eligible for a $6,000 to $10,000 scholarship.

The CU Denver grant will fund data collection and analyses, as well as a new postdoctoral researcher position in Denver. Specifically, the CU Denver group will observe, characterize and interpret the active learning methods employed in a large sample of learning assistant-supported and non-supported science courses at CU Denver, North Dakota State University and Florida International University.

“We know pretty definitively that STEM courses that use active learning methods are more effective at helping students learn and succeed,” said CU Denver principal investigator Robert “Bud” Talbot, assistant professor of science education in the School of Education & Human Development. “But we don’t know much about what kinds of active learning best benefit students and how learning assistants play a role in those environments.”

The CU-Boulder grant will help expand the Learning Assistant Program and its counterpart Learning Assistant Alliance, a diverse and collaborative network of 88 institutions worldwide. CU-Boulder is partnering with Chicago State University, George Washington University, Boston University and California State University-Chico. Partner institutions will receive additional funding from the NSF for this work.

“The fact that NSF has chosen to fund two large grants related to the Learning Assistant Program, and both within the CU system, is a testament not only to the strength of our research programs at the University of Colorado but also to the potential of the program to make significant impacts on STEM teaching and learning.”