From “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side”

The Concord Consortium’s Teacher Ambassador program commemorates our 25th anniversary by recognizing 25 outstanding teachers who have included our digital inquiry resources into their STEM classrooms. We congratulate them on their innovation and creativity.

Andrew Njaa, Falmouth High School, Falmouth, ME

“Getting out of the classroom and into the world.” That’s the most exciting thing about education today, explains Andrew Njaa.

A philosophy major at a liberal arts college isn’t the most obvious path to teaching physics. But after graduating from St. John’s College in Santa Fe in 1984, a new fellowship collaboration between St. John’s, the University of New Mexico, and Santa Fe Public Schools changed the course of his career plans. Andrew completed an internship learning how to teach and teaching math at Santa Fe Technical High School. He was convinced that he wanted to be in the classroom.

Andrew married his sweetheart in 1986, and followed his wife to St. Paul, where she pursued her career and Andrew taught physics and physical science. When his wife started a nurse practitioner graduate program in Portland, Maine, they packed up again. After consulting for TERC and the Concord Consortium for a couple years, he became a high school teacher at Falmouth High School in 1997. He’s been there for over 20 years.

The road signs welcoming visitors to Maine claim, “The way life should be.” For Andrew, the way education should be is interconnected, with interdisciplinary education that breaks down silos. It’s all about bringing community members into the classroom and his classroom into the community. He wants his students to be able to apply scientific methods and research in the real world, noting, “It does no good to spend 6-8 weeks getting clarity on stoichiometry if there is no context or world view in which to apply it.”

Andrew Njaa and InquirySpace teacher

Andrew Njaa and colleague at an InquirySpace summer workshop.

But how can teachers support students in getting out into the world and seeing that larger context? The answer: Tools, templates, and technology that is “seamless, intuitive, and powerful.” Andrew has been an innovator for years, using these tricks of the trade in his own classroom.

While consulting for the Concord Consortium, he served as a teacher moderator in one of our earliest online teacher professional development courses called INTEC (International Netcourse Teacher Enhancement Coalition). As a facilitator of online discussions, he learned the importance of moving from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side.” And he has taken that lesson to heart in his own physics classroom, where he describes his best teaching as providing structure and context while asking questions, but generally “staying out of the way.”

Over the years, he has used many Concord Consortium resources, including Molecular Workbench and some of the early dragon genetics games, plus “one that drove our IT coordinator crazy with all the updates and Java glitches.” Currently, he’s collaborating on the InquirySpace project, which introduces independent experimentation into high school science courses. He’s proud to see his students working both independently and collectively to make meaning from a diverse set of experiments. They’re using CODAP (Common Online Data Analysis Platform) to analyze and visualize data, and his students are “beginning to see data as non-linear and messy.” Andrew couldn’t be happier. After all, that’s the way the real world is!

Favorite ice cream: Chocolate chip