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

The mission of the Center for STEM Learning (CSL) is to improve science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education at the University of Colorado Boulder, and to serve as a state, national, and international resource for such efforts.

Our vision for achieving this mission is:

  • To maintain an infrastructure of institutional support in order to transform STEM education, support education research within and across STEM fields and departments, and promote K20 faculty recruitment, preparation, and professional development.
  • To facilitate change in STEM education by integrating an interdisciplinary community of scholars, promoting, sustaining, and evaluating existing reform efforts, sponsoring new programs, advocating for diversity and access, influencing relevant policy, fundraising, and communicating with the public.

Center/Program Structure

The center reports to the dean of the graduate school. It is the only center that reports to this office, we believe; however all Institutes (an organizational structure larger at the scale of a department) report this Dean. Originally the idea was to have the Center for STEM Learning become an independent Institute.

There is an exec. board comprised of the Chancellor, Provost, Deans from A&S, Engineering, and Education, and Vice Chancellor for Strategic Relations.

There is a director and (currently) a co-director position which supervises the staff: budgetary, management, and programmatic. This Project Management Team oversees the operation of the center which is governed by the Fellows.

Are there advantages of being structured this way?
This structure allows for adaptability and growth in programming coupled with strong forms of communication.

Are there particular challenges that result from this structure?

We would benefit from a single executive director position that is full-time funded. Now it is largely a sideline activity for current faculty.

Center Funding

The Center for STEM Learning was initially funded by a seed-grant ($1M) from the NSF I-3 (Institutional Innovation through Integration) program. This initial funding (2009-2014) was modestly matched by the university to provide additional funding for graduate student awards in STEM education transformation and research.

In the latter years of the grant the provost and his offices provided increased funding for programmatic work. Since NSF funding ended (2014), the provost and dean of the graduate school provide the main sources of funding, that support our ~ 2 full-time staff, seed awards, and funding for programming, communication, and travel.

We additionally fund the Center through indirect cost recovery (overhead) for grants that run through the center (currently $1.5M/ year in grants), and modest gift funding that supports the center.

Several of the key programmatic enterprises that the center offers come from external grants (e.g. NSF TRESTLE, AAU SITAR, etc.)

Our long-term goals for funding the center would be to have dedicated, annual budget from the university (provost / chancellor) that supports the key functions of the center, and then use indirect cost-recovery, extramural grants, and gift funds to grow (or shrink) the center programmatic efforts (including research) to offer additional functions / outcomes from the center.

How has this funding structure influenced the undergraduate STEM education programming the center offers?

Among the core functions of the center are the incubation of new educational activities (through the Chancellor Awards) and the gathering of campus community in undergraduate STEM education (through our symposia, workshops and seminar series). These are all designed to empower those who improve undergraduate STEM Education.

The Chancellor Awards (faculty awards up to $10k) funded by the central administration have been followed with many NSF and other federal awards in the same area of inquiry. With dozens of Chancellor Awards in STEM education provided in the last several years, $M dedicated to improve undergraduate has been won from federal agencies.

The community building has allowed for new collaborative enterprises (e.g. interdisciplinary research and coursework) that likely would not have been realized.

It also allows for a neutral organization that sits both outside individual departments, but has strong identity within departments (e.g. through the Fellows program) to allow for communication about and legitimization of undergraduate STEM education transformation.

What are the specific advantages of having a center funded in this way?

Having secured funding outside of any individual program has provided an institutional mechanism for people to engage in improving undergraduate STEM education.

Central funding of the funding allows for incubation at the local scale, an institutional home for people/ projects that do not otherwise fit, and signaling of institutional commitment to this enterprise.

Additional extramural funding allows us to scale but not to be too critically dependent on extramural funding for existence.

What are the challenges?

With continued funding challenges at a state institution, and year-to-year funding (rather than line-item budgeting) the operation of the budget is dependent upon a year-to-year case being made for its existence.

Has this funding structure has changed over time?

Yes. See above.

Initially funded extramurally from NSF, with modest institutional support. Now it is internally funded with external support for programming.

We are not above the idea of being endowed : )

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 contributes to, promotes and helps to shape the state and national dialogs in STEM education. In parallel we build networks among programs for community, the K12 school system, informal education, policy, and public at large.

General activities:

  • Formally coordinate our three related lines of inquiry: (1) educational transformation (particularly course, departmental, and institutional transformation in higher education), (2) education research within and across STEM fields and departments, and (3) K20 teacher recruitment, preparation, and professional development;
  • Serve as an additional intellectual and academic home for faculty, researchers, staff, and students from the various schools, departments, institutes, centers, and programs invested in STEM education transformation and research;
  • Nucleate, sustain, and advocate for programs that reach audiences not historically represented in STEM: all programs participating in the CU-Boulder Center for STEM Learning are encouraged to address diversity and support students, staff and faculty from under-represented populations;
  • Create opportunities, personnel support, and events for communication among existing programs and support cross-programmatic planning, grant writing, and project development;
  • Stabilize, sustain, and externalize the CSL model for university-level STEM education, allowing other institutions to adopt, adapt, and build upon our efforts;
  • Promote research and faculty, graduate, and postdoc development in STEM education through funding, mentoring, and communication;
  • Develop, advocate, and support the incorporation of useful learning and program assessment tools within and across STEM departments;
  • Build the regional, state, and national reputation of CU Boulder as a leader in and resource for STEM education.

Specific programmatic activities:

  • An annual symposium on STEM education research
  • Make Chancellor's Awards for Excellence in STEM Education to graduate students: matching funds will be awarded to support students who engage in graduate-level education research and educational reform programs within the STEM disciplines
  • Make Chancellor's Awards for Excellence in STEM Education to faculty: to support faculty who engage in discipline-based educational research.
  • Development of a cyber infrastructure and a web-based STEM education portal to link programs and disseminate results.
  • A seminar/group meeting series that spans the STEM education transformation and research community at CU-Boulder.
  • A visiting speakers program inviting scholars from across the country to share findings and visit CU-Boulder
  • Host workshops for the STEM community at CU-Boulder that target key areas of interest.
  • Support and develop regional and national STEM education networks and events Support evaluation of STEM education efforts across campus.
  • Serve in an advisory role to the CU administration on STEM initiatives, STEM education, and STEM education policy implementation
  • Serve in an advisory role to the state of Colorado on STEM education initiatives, legislation, and funding priorities
  • Conduct evaluation of the center programmatic activities, impacts and outcomes

Successes and Impacts

The Center incubates, hosts, and advances new models of educational change and effective practices.

Evidence of CSL impact and success:

  • The Center serves as resource, connector, and advocate for the nearly 100 programs in STEM education on the CU Boulder campus­. The Center supports these programs that advance all students' success, but particularly for women, underrepresented minorities and first-generation college students. Through the weekly DBER seminar series, online resources, an annual symposium, specialized workshops and conferences, advising, and administrative support, the Center advances our collective mission for excellence and inclusion in STEM education and success for students across initiatives.
  • The Center directly seeds innovation and advancement of student success through the Chancellors awards for STEM Educational Excellence. There have been 35 faculty awards and 33 graduate awards. These awards have seeded new educational initiatives spanning science and the arts (for instance, LearnChemE, whose online education resources for chemical engineering are downloaded hundreds of thousands of times per year (, and innovative Boulder Laptop Orchestra (BLOrk), which integrates technology with improvisers in an ensemble setting providing live interaction between the two(
  • As a result of Center support provided to graduate students, there have been nearly a dozen Ph.D.s in discipline-based education research (DBER) in the fields of engineering, physics, astrophysics, and atmospheric sciences, among other disciplines.
  • The center hosts programs that are innovative and advance our understanding of student learning and educational spaces, and directly serve to advance students and teachers. For instance, the influential study, Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences is currently being replicated, and augmented, by researchers here at CU and at the University of Wisconsin ( is housed within the Center, as is the experiential science (XSci) project, which researches, develops and provides experiential learning programs to students and teachers across the state and nationally through the Battelle STEMx network (XSci). Currently, the Center hosts a variety such programmatic efforts and is focused on growing these efforts
  • The Center serves as a home for interdisciplinary discussions that advance student success. Center Fellows are currently engaged in efforts to examine graduate programs in STEM education, advance under-represented student access through coordinated research experiences, and more.

Evaluation and Assessment

The center builds evaluation into its annual reports and annual funding requests, through executive summaries.

When funded by the NSF, external evaluation, served as a similar function (requiring summative evaluation from prior years) but also added a formative evaluation structure to provide feedback on core function and next steps.

Currently evaluation of the center activities and impacts seeks to delineate how we are addressing our core mission / vision, and align with the priorities of the university Chancellor: addressing reputation of the institution, impacts on student reputation and retention, and new models for revenue.

(See essay for more details)

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.

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. 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).

Supplemental Materials

Essay: Not everything that can be counted counts: or how I learned to quit worrying and love the evaluation. - Noah Finkelstein, Center for STEM Learning (CSL), CU Boulder