The National Science Foundation has awarded a $3.6 million grant to the Boulder and Denver campuses of the University of Colorado for expanding student engagement in STEM education, with $2.5 million given to the University of Colorado Boulder and $1.1 million to the Denver campus. The grants will fund learning assistant training programs to help identify the best practices for engaging learners in STEM.
The Boulder grant will expand the Learning Assistant Program of the university as well as the Learning Assistant Alliance, a network counting 88 institutions as its members worldwide.
The Denver grant will be funded toward research and data analysis with a new postdoctoral research position also opening for this purpose. The Denver group will observe and interpret active learning methods at learning assistant supported and non-supported science courses at CU Denver, North Dakota State University and the Florida International University as a way of establishing the most efficient practices in encouraging STEM learning and student retention.
Robert Talbot, CU's Denver assistant professor of science education and principal investigator, said:
"[W]e don't know much about what kinds of active learning best benefit students and how learning assistants play a role in those environments."
He added that the grant will reveal the kind of interactive learning environments that nurture student success. Through the grants, learning assistants will be able to identify the ideal way to interact with students on a peer-to-peer level:
"Learning Assistants don't grade student work — they can't be seen as a teacher — they have to be seen as a peer. That way the students trust them â¦ they can be more honest," said Talbot.
Through the Learning Assistant program on both campuses, undergraduate learning assistants who major in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects have to learn the latest research on STEM education and acquire strategies and practices to motivate and engage learners into STEM learning. They then will assist faculty to optimize courses and support their undergraduate peers through STEM learning, usually in the form of small-group meetings.
"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 co-founder of the Learning Assistants Program. She added:
"We want students to be actively involved in creating knowledge rather than just writing down what the instructor says."
Apart from engaging learners, a side goal of the program is to increase retention, especially for underrepresented students in STEM. The Learning Assistants are paid up to $1.500 per semester for 10 hours of work per week. Often, the Learning Assistants pursue a career as K-12 teachers with a focus on inspiring younger generations to consider STEM fields as an education and career path. According to Colorado.edu, Learning Assistants who decide to get a K-12 license get a scholarship between $6,000 to $10,000.