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Mentoring A New Wave Of STEM Teachers

For those interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and in an academic career, the Learning Assistant Program at Montgomery College is a good way for students to “try on” teaching for a semester. It places experienced undergraduate students in the classroom to assist introductory STEM students. Learning Assistants are paired one-on-one to work with a faculty mentor to assist in a STEM course throughout the semester.

They receive a stipend for the semester for a five-to six-hour per week commitment.

LA (center) guiding students in a Calculus flipped classroom

“It’s beautiful to watch the Learning Assistants grow as they try on teaching, deepen their knowledge in STEM, build presentation and confidence skills, share study strategies with their students, and form friendships with other Learning Assistants through dinner gatherings and training events,” Learning Assistant Program Director Dr. Carolyn Schick said.

The program began at Montgomery College in the fall of 2013 with 16 learning assistants in a variety of STEM courses. Since then, the program has grown to approximately 40 in a multitude of STEM courses across the three college campuses. The program has supported 278 individual Learning Assistants from fall 2013 through spring 2018.

Dr. Schick said one of her favorite quotes from student evaluations is from a student who wrote that having a Learning Assistant gave her the comfort to learn. Duties include encouraging students to articulate their ideas, answering questions when students are in need of assistance, supporting students, sharing study skills, being a peer-model, and being a non-intimidating person to ask questions.

I never really viewed myself as someone who could have taught, but after my tenure, I now view a teaching career as a potential option

Avery Dabreau was a Learning Assistant during spring 2018 and reflected on his time in the position: “I never really viewed myself as someone who could have taught, but after my tenure, I now view a teaching career as a potential option,” he said. “With the satisfactory feeling that I got from this experience, I can’t help but wonder how actual teaching would feel like.”

Each Learning Assistant is required to give at least one presentation/mini-lesson in the class, which is formally evaluated by the faculty mentor. They receive a copy of this formal evaluation and can incorporate it into their future teaching portfolios.

LA (left) working with students in Chemistry Lab

“Each one paves the way for other students in the class to want to be Learning Assistants, getting students excited about learning as well as thinking about a future in STEM teaching. The Learning Assistants are passionate about wanting to help students succeed. With infectious enthusiasm, they assist the students, and, as peer-models, directly impact student success and foster positive attitudes towards learning in STEM at Montgomery College,” Dr. Schick said.

The 40 Learning Assistants are working with and supporting around 900 students each semester.  In student evaluations of the Learning Assistant program over 90% students report that they learned more by having a Learning Assistant in their class and that having an Learning Assistant helped them succeed.

The program is inspiring students on the receiving end to consider teaching as well. As Grazchella Vicente, a student who had a Learning Assistant last semester, said: “I would definitely consider being a Learning Assistant after experiencing having one.”

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