A Synergistic Model of Educational Change

Valerie Otero, Michael Ross, Samson Sherman
University of Colorado, Boulder

The University of Colorado, Boulder (CU Boulder) has established an integrated model of educational change by leveraging funding from professional societies, national foundations, industry, and the University. Much of our work hinges on the nationally emulated Colorado Learning Assistant program together with the NSF-funded Noyce Fellowship program, which allows us to transform and study our large-enrollment, undergraduate courses so that they are more closely aligned with the findings of research in cognitive science and education. As a result, faculty from science, mathematics, and engineering have become involved in educational transformation and in recruiting and preparing students to become K-12 teachers1.

CU Boulder recruits teachers through the Colorado Learning Assistant  (LA) program2 and through the STEP I and STEP II courses of the CU-Teach curriculum3 (part of the UTeach national replication effort).  A critical part of our recruitment, preparation, and retention efforts is the Noyce Fellowship Phase I and Phase II programs4, which provide support for LAs and CU-Teach students who have committed to teaching in high needs school districts. Finally, the Master Teacher track of the Noyce program provides crucial support for our Streamline to Mastery induction program5, which seeks to retain teachers while preparing them for leadership positions in their districts and for participating in the national dialog on educational assessment and educational change.

At CU Boulder, approximately 85 undergraduate Learning Assistants (LAs) are hired each semester to work with Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) faculty to transform large-enrollment, lecture-style courses so that they are more student-centered and interactive in 9 STEM departments. In 2009-2010, 40 classes were transformed using LAs including some upper division courses. All new LAs attend a special course in Mathematics and Science Education taught by an education faculty and an experienced K-12 teacher. These LAs comprise a pool of STEM majors from which we recruit new K-12 teachers. The Colorado LA program works closely with the Physics Teacher Education Coalition6 of the American Physical Society and with the Science and Mathematics Teacher Imperative of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities7 who have similar goals. We received the Noyce Phase I grant in January 2005, at which time we restricted applicants to those who had served as LAs.

In 2008, we applied for and received a Noyce Phase II grant. With Noyce Phase II, all CU-Teach students recruited from the STEP I and II courses in addition to LAs became eligible for Noyce fellowships. Through our Noyce Phase II funding, we also embarked on a focused effort to increase diversity within the program by partnering with other diversity-focused programs on campus such as the McNiell program, the Miramontes Arts and Sciences Program, Education Diversity Scholars Program, Multicultural Engineering Program, and Partners in Science Education in the Community.

A unique element of the CU Boulder Noyce program is that all Noyce Fellows have the opportunity to work with STEM and education faculty and with K-12 teachers on discipline-based educational research and development projects often leading to publication and presentation at national conferences. For example, Noyce Fellows have worked on research involving students’ model-building practices in magnetism8, students’ discourse in calculus9,10, the development and deployment of photoelectric effect simulations11, interactions between LAs and TAs in transformed settings12, students’ conceptions in molecular biology13, the development and use of teaching guides for instructors, TAs and LAs in introductory chemistry, and the use and adaptation of the NSF-funded Physics and Everyday Thinking curriculum14,15 in high schools.



Math/Science Certification Program Completers
Since the program began in 2005 we have recruited a total of 68 LAs to careers in teaching, 48 of whom applied for and were awarded Noyce Fellowships as shown in the figure above. Currently 12 of these teachers are teaching full-time in high-needs school districts mostly throughout Colorado, but some in other areas throughout the United States.

In order to track the increase in the number of teachers that result from the LA/Noyce program more broadly, we compare the average number of students completing math and science certification programs each year in three different teacher certification programs at CU: the Master’s Plus certification program (MA+), the Post-Baccalaureate certification program (PBA), and the Undergraduate certification program (UG) before and after the LA/Noyce program started graduating its first certification students. The UG program is the program into which we recruit our LAs and Noyce Fellows. As is evident in the graph, the MA+ and the PBA programs stayed the same, the UG program increased dramatically from before and after we saw our first LA graduates.

Induction and Retention

The Streamline to Mastery induction program at CU Boulder is an NSF-funded Teaching Fellow/Master Teacher track of the Noyce program. Our Streamline to Mastery professional development program is unique in that seeks to capitalize on the expertise of teachers toward the creation and implementation of a useful professional development program for themselves and for other teachers. The creation and implementation of the professional development program by the teachers themselves also serves as participant-driven professional development for these teachers leading to leadership identities and skills. The NSF Noyce TF/MT track provides salary supplements of $15,000/yr for teachers to participate for five years in professional development leading to mastery.

Currently, four physics and physical science teachers are participating in our program (they will begin the process of selecting the next cohort of eight teachers in Spring 2011). Two of the teachers are former LAs and Noyce Fellows from CU Boulder, the third has a Ph.D. in Biochemistry, and the fourth received a master’s plus certification from a prestigious program at CU Boulder. The two former LAs received their master’s degrees in Urban Education from a competitive program at the University of Denver. In addition, the Streamline to Mastery team consists of two graduate students in physics education research (both former high school physics teachers), four current Noyce Fellows (two undergraduate physics majors, one doctoral student in physics, and one undergraduate chemistry major), and one project principal investigator.

The Streamline to Mastery vision is that through strategic use of opportunities for professional development that draw on the skills that the teachers, graduate students, Noyce Fellows, and professors already have, we can develop expertise as a community that will lead to increased mastery of the content, of pedagogy, and of our own identities as agents of educational change. Like the LA program, the Streamline to Mastery program is an experiential learning program where all participants are working together to establish a greater understanding of our roles in educational change. At the same time, the evolving community provides a rich forum for Noyce Fellows to work directly with real, current teachers as they deliberate over daily features of their jobs including rewards, obstacles, challenges, and strategies for working with students and administrative issues. In addition, Noyce Fellows assist classroom teachers with their action research projects. We hypothesize that this opportunity provides superior, authentic teacher preparation for our Noyce Fellows while serving as a mechanism for establishing superior professional development for our Streamline to Mastery teachers. As such we are evaluating various aspects of the program internally and externally.

Participant Views of the Streamline to Mastery Program

In order to provide an accurate illustration of the Streamline to Mastery program, we offer statements made by the teachers themselves.

Teacher 1: Unquestionably, Streamline to Mastery has had a profound effect on my teaching practice and pedagogy. After a tough first year of teaching as the only physics teacher in our school, and coming in with a background in cell biology rather than physics, I'm not sure that I would have opted to continue teaching physics if I had not had the opportunity to join Streamline and take advantage of the many avenues for support and professional development to which I now have access. I am researching the effect on student growth (academic and social) of student-student mentoring experience. My high school students will be teaching physics to local elementary students in schools where science has been cut from the curriculum using a Learning Assistant-style model.

Teacher 2: In the Fall of 2008 I began teaching Physics and Chemistry in an urban high school in north Denver and I truly began to understand the amount of patience, multi-tasking, and compassion necessary to introduce science content to high school students. I quickly learned that teaching involves many ups and downs and several times each month I found myself asking, “why am I a teacher?” and “am I really making a difference?” I felt alone in these questions, because my colleagues rarely looked as though they struggled and seemed too busy to discuss their teaching experiences. However, when I began working with the Streamline to Mastery cohort I soon was comforted with a healthy dose of reality and optimism from three colleagues who also teach science in the Denver-Metro area as well as the University–based team. For the first time in my teaching career, professional development became personal; it was not about what someone else could “teach us” (that they deemed important), but rather was about critically reflecting on pressing issues within our own classrooms. At Streamline, we openly discussed challenges like district-mandated curriculum or engaging students who have had very negative science experiences.

Teacher 3: As a teacher in a small public school where I am the only 9th grade science teacher, it is easy to get swept up in the minutia and lose track of the big picture (and why I became a teacher in the first place -- the students). The Streamline to Mastery program is an exciting opportunity to become a better science teacher, a leader and a change agent, which helps me feel grounded and puts everything back into perspective. This unique forum allows me and the other teachers to collaboratively explore various aspects of teaching and learning with other experts in science education. We have learned so much from each other by being able to share openly about our struggles and successes, analyzing our students' work to explore the concept of inquiry, and embarking on thoughtful action research to dive deeper into various aspects of my own teaching and learning. I anticipate growing and stretching my thinking as I continue to become a leader and a change agent in science education.

Teacher 4: At this point in my career I am required to attend certain meetings and trainings that are aimed at improving my teaching and thus improving student achievement. The meetings and training are sometimes helpful, encouraging and inspiring but other times they are discouraging and irrelevant to what really goes on in my classroom. What Streamline has done for me is create a space where the meetings are always helpful and relevant simply because we as teachers are part of the process of designing what works for us. I feel like my experience and ideas as an educator are valued. I have found that participating in action research in my classroom is challenging, yet rewarding, but more importantly it engages me as a teacher to analyze what is working in my classroom and what needs to be improved. Having ownership in my research is what makes it work.


The Noyce Fellowship and Noyce Streamline to Mastery programs at CU Boulder synergistically interface with the LA program, the CU Teach certification program, and with one another. By leveraging resources from multiple sources we have begun to establish a structure through which future teachers work with inservice teachers in ways that greatly benefit both. By bringing our graduate students into the mix, we have been able to bridge research and practice both for teacher preparation and for teacher professional development and retention.

1.V. Otero, S. Pollock, N. Finkelstein (in press), American Journal of Physics.

2.Funded by NSF grants #302134, #554615 and PhysTEC

3. Funded in part by the National Mathematics and Science Initiative

4. Funded by NSF grants #434144 and #833258

5.Funded in part by NSF grant #934921

6. http://www.colorado.edu/physics/EducationIssues/phystec/


8.Otero, V., Jalovec, S.,* & Her Many Horses, I.* (2006, July). Evolution of Students’ model-building practices in an inquiry-based physics course. Paper presented at the biannual meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers, Syracuse, NY.

9.Spooner, K.,* Geist, A.,* Curry, J., Dougherty, A., & Nelson, M. (2007, January). Learning Assistant research in the Applied Mathematics department, Boulder, Colorado. Paper presented at the Joint Mathematics Meeting, New Orleans, LA.

10. Nelson, M. A., Geist, A.,* & Venturo, A.* (2008, January). Noyce Fellows and Learning Assistants at CU, Boulder. Presented at the Joint Mathematics Meeting, San Diego, CA.

11.McKagan, S. B., Handley, W.,* Perkins, K. K., & Wieman, C. E. (2009). A research-based curriculum for teaching the photoelectric effect, American Journal of Physics.

12. S. Stachurski, V. Lyman, V. Otero (2010, March) Urban Teachers’ Views of the Colorado Learning Assistant Program, Presented at the Spring Colloquium Series, School of Education, University of Colorado, Boulder.

13. Klymkowsky, M. W., Gheen, R.,* & Garvin-Doxas, K. (2007). Avoiding reflex responses: Strategies for revealing students' conceptual understanding in biology. In L. McCullough, J. Hsu & P. Heron, (Eds.), 2007 Physics Education Research Conference Proceedings. Melville, NY: AIP Press, 3-6.

14. F. Goldberg, S. Robinson, and V. Otero, Physics and Everyday Thinking (It’s About Time, Herff Jones Education Division, Armonk, NY, 2007). Funded in part by NSF grant #096856

15. S. Stachurski and V. Otero,(2010, July). Essential Components of Student-Centered Physics Curricula for High School. Presented at the annual Noyce PI Conference.

Valerie Otero is an associate professor of science education and a member of the physics education research group at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is the director of the Colorado Learning Assistant Program, the Colorado Noyce Fellowship program, the Streamline to Mastery program, and the CU-Teach program.
Samson Sherman is an undergraduate physics major who served as a Learning Assistant in 2008 and has been conducting discipline-based educational research as a Noyce Fellow since 2009.
Michael Ross is a doctoral candidate in science education at the University of Colorado, Boulder. After teaching high school physics for 5 years, he turned his attention to graduate school to study how culture, race, and power interact with students' opportunities to learn physics in American secondary schools.

Disclaimer- The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.