2018 Viola Award Finalist for Excellence in Science Education
Christine Sapio is in the 12th year of her current position at Coconino High School: Coconino Institute of Technology Physics, Physics, AP Physics 1 and 2 Teacher and Coconino Institute of Technology Coordinator – she is responsible for recruiting new students to the program. Under her leadership, the program has earned a reputation for excellence in the community.
Christine believes a teacher’s job is to guide students through a journey of discovery that is directed by questions generated by the students themselves. Knowledge with no meaning and no connection to the real world is useless and soon forgotten, but when a student finds their own explanation for the natural world, it becomes a part of their mental schema in a way simply being told a fact does not. Her greatest assets as a teacher are her infectious enthusiasm, her ability to instantly read her students, and her strong Socratic Questioning skills that allow her to draw knowledge out of her students rather than just feed them information. Her class is high energy and dynamic, and fun.
When preparing a lesson, she doesn’t ask, “what am I going to teach” but rather, “what will I help my students discover?” Physics can be so intimidating for students – research shows the majority of high school students don’t ever take it because of the perception that one needs to be a genius or really good at math to succeed in the class. But in Christine’s class, EVERYONE can (and does!) learn physics. The class is structured “backwards” from traditional physics courses that are teacher-centered and lecture dominated with labs done occasionally to “prove” a concept. Using research-based modeling curriculum, a typical learning cycle begins with exploration. Exploration typically leads to an “aha” moment that conflicts with what students “knew” about the natural world, and creates the opportunity for curiosity and questions. For the rest of the unit, everything the students do builds information and skills to answer those questions. Laboratory experiences are set up so that students can collect their own data to model physics mathematical relationships and share their discoveries by teaching their classmates. Only after the students are able to describe what they’ve learned does Christine finally assist them deriving the physics equations they need so they can apply what they’ve learned in real-life scenarios. Students say of Christine, “your lesson models are always intriguing, and you really are one of the best teachers I’ve ever had” and parents say, “your devotion to teaching and your students makes them feel important, successful, and encouraged that they can accomplish great things.”
STEM education at its finest provides a seamless integration of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. In Christine’s course, Science provides the questions we ask, Technology provides the tools to answer those questions, Engineering projects the chance for application, and Math is the language that brings it all to life. Students constantly collect their own data using Vernier instruments that can detect motion, magnetic fields, electric charge, sound waves, light intensity, rotation, and more. Engineering projects include bridges built out of pasta, boats built to hold two students made of cardboard, roller coasters built out of paper then scaled to full size, crash test vehicles designed to save an egg from traumatic injuries and g-forces experienced in a real car accident, rockets, mousetrap cars, homemade musical instruments that actually work, kaleidoscopes, and projectile machines. Even math is not a burden in Christine’s class because students are excited to learn the trigonometry necessary to hit their physics teacher with water balloons! As her students once wrote, “she models and fosters creativity, unmatchable enthusiasm, and passion in all she does.”
The CocoNuts FIRST Robotics Team
FIRST Robotics is about “More than Robots.” For 11 years, Christine has coached the non-technical side of the CocoNuts FIRST Robotics Team, which is now one of the top teams in Arizona. The vision of the CocoNuts is not simply to compete, but to “extend STEM opportunities to the rural, underrepresented areas of Northern Arizona and beyond through FIRST.” The tireless dedication and passion that Christine has helped instill in these high school students and their 18,500+ hours at over 60 FIRST events in two states and 200+ outreach events, workshops, and presentations has transformed this vision into a reality. They mentor dozens of Flagstaff FIRST teams at the elementary and middle schools and numerous teams nationwide because they believe in the power that students have to make a positive impact in their community, and they want other teams to experience the same success they’ve had. The CocoNuts have had the honor of representing Arizona at the World Championship for 10 consecutive years – every single year they’ve competed. They are the 7-time recipients of the highest award in FIRST, the Chairman’s Award, given to the team that exemplifies Gracious Professionalism and serves as a role model to other teams and their community. In Flagstaff, the CocoNuts are the symbol for the pinnacle of what STEM education can be – a powerful combination of 21st century and technical skills, community service, and a passion for inspiring others. The CocoNuts are well known all over Flagstaff because of the hundreds of hours they spend in the community showcasing STEM education at events like the Flagstaff Festival of Science and the STEM City Celebration, and all the time they spend working in all schools with FIRST teams, and inspiring younger students through the Camp COCONUTS summer program. The success of the program is evident in the students: 100% of their 30 alumni are attending college with over
$4.5 million in scholarships. Most are in STEM majors, and two will become teachers.
As impressive as the team accomplishments of the CocoNuts are, what Christine is proudest of is the people that the ‘Nuts become because of the program. So many of her students list community service and mentoring other teams as one of their favorite parts of the program. Students have the chance to serve as leaders to their peers and advocates for STEM education at the State and National level. Christine knows that these amazing young adults are on their way to make a positive impact on the world, and that makes all the long hours and crazy schedule worthwhile.
Expanding FIRST Robotics
As an AZ FIRST Tech Challenge Affiliate Partner and Northern Arizona FIRST Lego League Tournament Director, Christine has organized over 60 tournaments, kickoff events, and scrimmages for thousands of students in Arizona and New Mexico in the last 10 years – 16 events this year alone! Christine loves volunteering for FIRST! It’s a joy to see the excitement, innovation, and passion that FIRST instills in students at all levels.
To help create other FIRST teams, Christine dedicated her capstone project for her Master of Arts in Science Teaching at NAU to creating professional development opportunities and curriculum resources for FIRST Lego League coaches. “FIRST Lego League in a Nut Shell” features sample programs, design challenges, and tips for coaches. She created a two-day professional development workshop for teachers, which has been implemented by teachers all over Arizona. She continues to support all the coaches she trains throughout the whole season via in person and long-distance mentoring, insuring that STEM opportunities are available to the students who need them the most, no matter their location.
Mentoring other teachers
Christine is fortunate to have an amazing mentor (she wants to thank Dave!) who helped her become the teacher she is today, and so she works hard to pay that mentorship forward. She’s mentored six student teachers, dozens of pre-service practicum students and beginning teachers, presented workshops at teaching conferences, and given keynote addresses on STEM education. Whenever she has a new teacher observing her, she strives to model excellent teaching.
Christine has been honored to receive several awards for teaching in the past, including:
- 2016 Governor’s Celebration of Innovation Teacher of the Year
- 2014 Arizona Teacher of the Year Semifinalist (Top 10)
- 2013 Flagstaff STEM City Teacher of the Year
- 2013 Arizona Science Teachers Association High School Science Teacher of the Year
- 2013 Coconino County Teacher of the Year Finalist & Ambassador for Excellence
- 2012 Arizona FIRST Robotics Competition Teacher of the Year