March 10, 2011 | Myrna Anderson

Andrew Vanden Heuvel teaches online for the Michigan Virtual School and in a classroom at Calvin.

Andrew Vanden Heuvel teaches physics and astronomy part time at Calvin. He also teaches physics online via the Michigan Virtual School, and in January, he was named the Michigan Online Teacher of the Year for 2010.

More recently, Vanden Heuvel, a 2006 Calvin grad, was also one of five nominees for the National Online Teacher of the Year Award for K–12 learning. If he wins, he will be the second recipient of the award, sponsored by two educational nonprofit organizations: the Southern Regional Education Board and the International Association for K–12 Online Learning.

“It was quite a surprise to be selected as a finalist, but I am grateful for the opportunity to represent the many excellent online instructors in our state,” he said.

In the classroom

Vanden Heuvel he enjoys both the “brick-and-mortar” and virtual aspects of his teaching career:

“In a sense the career that I have today is a career that didn’t exist 10 years ago. I don’t have an employer in the traditional sense,” he said. “I don’t have benefits or a retirement plan. I guess the testament to my Calvin education is that I’ve been able to adjust to a new way of working that hasn’t been modeled to me by the previous generation.”

After graduating in 2006, Vanden Heuvel spent an extra year at Calvin getting his teaching certificate, then earned a master’s in astronomy from the University of Florida. He moved to Wisconsin to teach at the Racine Prairie School and returned to Michigan in 2009.

“When I moved back from Wisconsin, I said, I wonder if there’s a Michigan Virtual School,” Vanden Heuvel said.

There was, and they were hiring an AP physics teacher, which is exactly what I was qualified to teach.” The online school was founded in 2000 by the Michigan Legislature to retrain auto workers, he said, but has evolved into an online institution that educates public school, private school and home school students at all skill levels.

On the internet

As one of 150 certified teacherson staff at the Michigan Virtual School, Vanden Heuvel works from home. The courses are asynchronous, which means the online students work at their own pace through the videos, simulations, discussions and readings that make up the course content.

“As a teacher, I’m responding to student questions on the material. I’m grading tests and homework and providing feedback,” Vanden Heuvel said. Connecting with students online is a surprisingly vital interaction, he added: “I think people would be surprised by how well you can get to know someone in a virtual classroom … Facebook and other social media prove that authentic interactions can happen in virtual setting.”

Online education is an effective pedagogy, he said: “People have been studying this for a number of years. Students do as well or better with online courses when they work at their own pace, and they do best when it’s a mix of face-to-face and online.”

A popular option

 Vanden Heuvel also develops courses for the Michigan Virtual School, and he’s seen the institution’s popularity grow: “This is the year online education exploded. I think we’ve seen our enrollments jump by 40 percent this year, whereas our typical (yearly) growth is about four percent.”

 Though he would like to pioneer a little online teaching at his alma mater, Vanden Heuvel knows the value of face-to-face instruction. “A challenge that we as educators face today is how to prepare our students for an uncertain and continuously changing future,” he said, “and my experience tells me that a liberal arts education is still the best preparation for that uncertainty .”

Vanden Heuvel has already pioneered a summer astronomy camp at Calvin for this past summer, where the 7th through 10th grade students who attended discovered a half-dozen variable stars. “He’s an enthusiastic and creative science educator in a wide range of venues,” said Calvin physics professor Larry Molnar.

Back in 2003, Vanden Heuvel became the first Calvin student to discover and name a previously undiscovered asteroid. (Since that time Calvin students and faculty have found, named and published 315 asteroids. “I feel like in a variety of ways I’ve had the opportunity to start things, and then other people take them and do something with it,” he said.

The 2011 Online Teacher of the Year will be named on Thursday, March 10 during the Southern Regional Education Board’s Education Cooperative’s Teaching and Learning Symposium in Atlanta. Watch an episode of Inner Compass featuring Sajan George talking about online learning.

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