Karena Ostrem assumed the position of the Lawrenceville School Academic Dean on July 1, 2010.
Ostrem previously served at the Bronx Lab School, a new and highly-acclaimed high school in New York City serving 480 students, first as a founding faculty member and then as assistant principal and co-director. At Bronx Lab, Ostrem was responsible for curriculum development, course scheduling, student academic support, professional development, budgeting, and external partnerships.
Ostrem has also served as a science teacher in Hotchkiss' Summer Portals Program, a mentor teacher for a cohort of 100 math teaching fellows in New York City through Math for America, a technology coach for a National Science Foundation program to bring engineering and technology to New York City public schools, and as a course instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School, and she sits on a variety of non-profit boards.
Ostrem taught science at Lawrenceville from 1997-2002, including a one-year position teaching math at the Island School. At Lawrenceville, she coached varsity girls' ice hockey, junior varsity field hockey, and softball. She also served as an assistant director of two student dormitories, and led student trips to Costa Rica, Guatemala, and various wilderness areas in the United States.
Ostrem graduated from Princeton University in June 1997 with a cum laude B.S.E. degree in civil engineering, received her M.S. in environmental engineering from Columbia University in 2004, and earned a certificate in school-based leadership from Baruch College's School of Public Affairs in 2009.
Getting Personal with Karena Ostrem
What were your favorite high school classes?
I had two -- photography and AP Physics -- and they both stand out for quite different reasons. I didn't see myself as an artist when I started high school, and in fact I panicked when I saw the art requirement for graduation. I reluctantly signed up for photography where I met Mr. D, and was introduced to his infectious passion for art and his penchant for solving cryptic crossword puzzles. The more I learned, the more I loved it, and I ended up taking an art class every semester in high school after that. It was the first time I really understood that we love what we know and we fear what we don't understand. Physics was different because I always looked forward to my science classes, except that Mr. Hick's passion was as compelling as Mr. D's. I was inspired by learning how the world works, even if my understanding then, in a world before string theory, seems not to be quite accurate. Still, what's better than predicting the motion of a massless elephant skating across a frictionless pond?
Why did you elect to get your degrees in civil engineering and environmental engineering? How did that prepare you for a career in education?
I chose engineering because I had been pretty successful in physics and math in high school, but I stayed with it because it gave me a framework for the world that made so much sense. There are pretty clear and strict constraints in engineering -- the building can't fall down -- and within those you have the freedom to be creative. There isn't one right answer, but there are plenty of wrong answers, and I felt like that was pretty good training for anything in life. I moved to environmental engineering in graduate school because the problems were so plentiful in a world just beginning to accept the inevitability of climate change, and the space to create solutions was so vast. As an educator, I wanted to be in a space where there were more questions than solutions because knowing how to form the right questions is really at the heart of teaching.
When did you decide to be a teacher?
When I was a toddler, I couldn't wait to start school, at least according to my mom. I do remember my pre-school teacher and wanting to be like her so much that the only game I ever wanted to play during free time was "school." This was a bit too much for the other students who were wondering why I imitated the first hour of the day during the next hour of the day. From then on, though, I really wanted to teach. I tried engineering for a while, and despite loving the discipline, I didn't get as much out of the job. I missed working with people, especially young people, so as soon as I started teaching, I was hooked.
What appeals to you about the job of Academic Dean?
I love teaching because I believe that all students can learn anything given the appropriate environment. My job is essentially to help create that environment and foster Lawrenceville as a community of learners where students, faculty, and administration are all committed to improving themselves daily. I'm thrilled to be doing this with such an amazing group of people whose ideas about learning are innovative and based in what we know about how people learn.
What are some of the skills or areas of knowledge you would like every Lawrentian to have before he or she graduates?
The volumes of knowledge in any discipline are so great that it would be impossible to teach it all, which means that our job as educators is to teach students how to negotiate what is out there. If a student can figure out what to do when he or she gets stuck, can find information, and evaluate its quality, and can make decisions based on valid, relevant, and sufficient evidence, I think that student is quite prepared to negotiate the world. If that student could do this with sensitivity to diverse cultures, an understanding of the importance of our fragile ecosystems, and openness to unthinkable paradigms, then we'll make the world a better place.
What are some of the most important things you learned at theBronx Lab School that you'll be bringing to Lawrenceville?
First is that to be a good teacher is to learn something every day. If you do that, you model your capacity to learn for your students and faculty. Since we created the school from scratch, we could also emphasize what we valued, and I learned the business school motto that you are what you measure. We valued effort as a means to success, a willingness to explore passions, a commitment to a nurturing community, and depth in academic rigor, and so that's how we assessed students and where we gave them feedback. In our move from a very small school to a less small school, I learned that involving the community makes us whole, and so presenting student work to a larger community or giving students time to do service learning became part of the program.
You're a course instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and have led student trips to Costa Rica, Guatemala, and various wilderness areas in the United States. Why do you think that sort of travel is important for high school students?
I can't think of anything more important than having an intense group experience in a novel environment, and that can be the wilderness, an international destination, or even a different culture here in the United States. The ability to empathize with others can't be learned from books or even from the comfort of familiar surroundings. Teamwork, as well, is only deeply learned when your well-being, and not just your grade, depends on others. Really all life skills -- communication, tolerance for adversity, leadership, and uncertainty in decision making, self-awareness -- are embedded into you as a person when you travel as an expedition. That list of skills, not coincidentally, is loosely the seven NOLS leadership skills.
What are some of your favorite things to do in when you aren't working?
Mostly, I like to spend time with my family: my husband (Marshall Nicoloff, Lawrenceville's Director of Outdoor Programs) and our son, Lincoln. I enjoy being in the outdoors, whether it's as close as The Institute for Advanced Study Woods or out in the Adirondack Mountains, and taking photographs while I'm there. I love running, though my marathon career is on hiatus now, and I am always looking for more opportunities to play hockey.
What advice would you have for a prospective student coming to Lawrenceville?
To find your passions while you are here and not to assume that you have already discovered everything that excites you. As you do that, know that you can accomplish anything, but that it takes hard work. So eat right, sleep enough, and surround yourself with people who nurture your spirit so that you can do that hard work.