STEM Ed Centers: A National Conversation > Center Profiles > Center for STEM Learning, University of Colorado Boulder
Author Profile

Center for STEM Learning

University of Colorado Boulder
Established: 2012 as a Center; 2008 as a signature initiative of the university

Profile submitted by Noah Finkelstein

Vision and Goals

Description of Programming

Centers in general and the CU Center for STEM Learning (CSL) are positioned to serve as key resources and to establish key infrastructure both within and among universities. Within the university the CSL creates a network among the 75+ programs in STEM education, bridges between university administration and on-the-ground efforts and individual faculty, catalyzes and supports STEM education innovations, supports leading research in STEM education and conducts research across educational programs and on institutional change. The CSL also serves as a focal point for STEM education communication, policy, and identity outside the university. The CSL is positioned to create strong ties with other university centers, creating a network among the many disparate programs, importing and exporting relevant educational innovations and research. The CSL will be positioned to contribute to, to promote and to shape the state and national dialogs in STEM education. The audiences for this work lay initially within the university (faculty, administration, staff, and students). In parallel we build programs for community, the K12 school system, informal education, policy, and public at large.

General activities:

Specific programmatic activities:

Successes and Impacts

Building the campus infrastructure for STEM education. In preparation for this Center, the community has been building campus infrastructure and capacity over the past five years. Through this infrastructure development, more than 75 programs devoted to STEM education have been identified, a needs-analysis conducted, and key stakeholders brought in to shape the structure of the CSL. Seed development efforts have included regular (weekly to bi-weekly) meetings of a project management team to design the center. There have been regular (bi-weekly to monthly) meetings among University Communications, Strategic Relations, Government Relations, and the Center staff. These coordinated efforts have helped establish a brand, identity, and commitment to STEM education at CU—developing branded materials, web-presence, talking points, brochures, staff roles, and language for CU and national efforts.

Despite being at the very beginning stages of this effort, the Center has had vast direct and indirect impact on CU-Boulder STEM education transformation and research. The CSL has supported more than 35 faculty and graduate students with Chancellor's Awards for Excellence in STEM Education (the award itself is a product of infrastructure building). These awards have supported the educational transformation of more than an dozen educational environments, supported 20 graduate students in STEM education research (with 12 PhDs so far, and at least 4 new lines of PhD research in departments on campus), and provided seed funding for more than 15 faculty to engage in STEM education research and transformation. These awardees have subsequently brought in 8 NSF Awards (over $3.5M) on research related to/drawing from their Chancellor Awards.

Developing campus community and identity around STEM education. While harder to measure directly, The CSL efforts have supported community development through two annual symposia (brining hundreds of campus community state and national stakeholders), mini-symposia on targeted areas (such as teacher professional development), a dedicated staff, web-portal / presence, and advising on individual efforts. CSL has supported the development and expansion of the Discipline-based Education research community on campus, which now includes hundreds of faculty, staff and students, across dozens of departments and programs and at least 6 colleges on campus. CSL has already supported interdisciplinary partnerships between physics and social psychology, between engineering and education, and outreach, education, arts & sciences and engineering. CSL will be a partner in the newly formed General Engineering + program. Two significant grants (~$3-$4M) are already running the Center, and 4 more grants have been submitted to the NSF running (at least in part) through the Center.

The Center for STEM Learning also directly supports and scales individual programmatic efforts on campus. A flagship program in CU STEM education is the Colorado Learning Assistant Program:
The Colorado Learning Assistant (LA) Model at the University of Colorado-Boulder uses the transformation of large-enrollment science courses as a mechanism for achieving four goals:

With the support of the Center, the LA program has grown to impact nearly 9,000 students/ year, across dozens of courses, and three colleges.

More on the LA program at

The CSL supports a broad array of STEM education programs on campus.

Elements Contributing to Success

The CSL has taken an intentional grass-roots approach to seeding engagement and interest in STEM education on this campus. As described above the CSL has supported a broad variety of programs that support individuals, programs and departments to engage in STEM education (e.g., the symposia, DBER seminar, chancellor awards, etc.)

At the same time the CSL has worked with the administration to provide hooks to provide institutional capacity for those efforts that are spreading and beginning to take root. The CSL provides a mechanism to link the senior administration (top down) with the individual programs (bottom up) approaches. At the same time the CSL provides resources for each of these communities, providing examples of successful programs to scale/ advocate for at the administrative level, and institutional support for programs at the grassroots level.

The center, as described above, is distributed across campus; it does not have a major building or home. This approach honors existing institutional structures (e.g. departments and disciplines) while providing venues for emerging / expansive approaches (interdisciplinary work).

The project was seeded with extramural funding, most substantially by the NSF i3 program (institutional innovation through integration). Efforts in directed, disciplinary based education programs can be traced back to the 1950's (early work in the physics department), and a long trajectory of building STEM education programs on campus. Currently the CSL is helping address the pressures on the university for improved education (increased learning outcomes, and retention of majors / graduates), cost models, and promise of new technologies.

Most notably this center builds on the success of key programs in engineering (integrated teaching and learning program), arts&sciences (the science education initiative) and education (the learning assistant program).

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