Mathematician Heeds Call to Return Home to Teach STEM on Maui

Nick Okamoto STEM

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At a time when many high school seniors in Hawai’i are opting to attend college on the mainland, one prodigal son has returned.

Born on the Big Island and raised on Maui, Nicholas Okamoto began his undergraduate studies at the University of Hawaii Maui College and completed his bachelor’s degree at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. His plans were to continue toward a PhD in physics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, but 17 years ago, one little postcard changed the course of his career. “I got a postcard in the mail that I was about to throw away, but it had an unusual math equation that sparked my interest,” Okamoto recalls. “The postcard was looking for mathematically minded people to teach secondary school in New York City.”

Math for America

A few months later, Okamoto left our verdant islands and found himself gaping at the steel canyons of Manhattan. As part of the second cohort for Math for America, Okamoto would receive free tuition for a master’s in math education at Columbia University plus a $30,000 living stipend in exchange for teaching for four years in the New York City public school system.

Math for America has been so successful that, in 2013, Congress approved funding for the National Science Foundation Teaching and Master Teaching Fellowships, funded by the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship program, the same Noyce program behind Teach STEM in Hawai’i.

Okamoto praises how supportive the Math for America was, from assisting with job searches to monthly career development programs. He also mentioned that he received a stipend each year to make his salary comparable to what he might have earned had he gone into a professional math field. “It’s a great way to attract mathematically talented individuals,” he says.

At Booker T. Washington Middle School, Okamoto — or Mr. O, as his students called him — displayed such a passion for teaching sixth-grade math that he left a lasting impression on his students. Having received tenure after his third year teaching, he had a difficult decision to make. His original plan was to save up money for a return to graduate school, but he was very tempted to remain as a middle school math teacher in Manhattan.

Advanced Degrees

“I love math,” Okamoto says, “which you have to do or you’ll burn out.” He also knew he had to choose an area to specialize in if he were to obtain advanced degrees. But when he was in New York, he learned about geometric algebra, which he found “absolutely fascinating.”

With that and his mother’s urging, after completing his teaching commitment for Math for America, Okamoto enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Missouri, where he earned a master’s in applied mathematics and a Ph.D. in math.

After living in one of the biggest cities in the world and America’s heartland, Okamoto felt the tug to return home. He’d kept the University of Hawai’i job site bookmarked on his laptop, and the day after he defended his dissertation, he received a job offer from the University of Hawai’i Maui College. He readily accepted.

The diversity was one of the aspects he missed most. “People call New York a melting pot, but Hawai’i is truly diverse,” Okamoto says, referring to the fact that the state has the largest multi-racial population in the country. “Hawai’i is much more of a blend. It has a unity in its diversity.”

The Rewards of Teaching

Hawai’i needs STEM teachers, particularly ones who are passionate about their subject. “It’s incredibly rewarding to help others acquire a greater appreciation for a subject that you find so fascinating and beautiful,” Okamoto says. “I love talking about math and I get to do that for a living. Some of my favorite memories of teaching are when you’re looking at your students and you see an expression on their face and you know they’ve just had an ‘a-ha’ moment. You can tell they’re starting to see the beauty that you see. It’s intrinsically motivating.”

Okamoto recalls being at Mizzou when he received a message from a friend in New York, who said that even though he’d been gone two years, students were still writing glowing reviews about him. One anonymous poster wrote: “I didn't know I loved math until I had Mr. O’s class. I still love it now, two years later.” “That’s why I teach,” Okamoto says.

For individuals considering teaching in Hawai’i, Okamoto recommends visiting first. “If you find the place matches with you, there's no better place to be.”

Ready to teach STEM in Hawaii?

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Nick Okamoto

Professor in the Mathematics department at University of Hawaii Maui College

Teaching in the Land of Rainbows

Aram Armstrong STEM

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There is a cherished 'ōlelo no'eau (Hawaiian proverb): “Ole ua,'ole anuenue" (“No rain, no rainbow”). It is through this prism, we shall view teaching in Hawai’i, using the lens of asset framing, a thinking tool that defines situations by their positive aspects and contributions, rather than their problems and deficits. There are a multitude of benefits to teaching in the Aloha State. On any given day in paradise, you are likely to enjoy sunshine and one of 200 varieties of Hawaiian rain from which rainbows are born. From verdant valleys to majestic mountains and even desolate deserts, the diversity of climates is matched only by the diversity of cultures present in Hawaiʻi. Hawaiian cultural values of aloha (love), pono (justice), kuleana (responsibility), and lokahi (unity) create a strong foundation for island living and kinship with the land; ʻāina is ʻohana (the land is home). We love our kumu (teachers) and respect our kupuna (elders).

"You Could Be Teaching Here"[Hanalei Elementary School on Kauai  (CC) Wally Gobetz

Despite Hawai’i’s abundance of natural gifts, the state education system is struggling to attract and retain teachers. More than 60,000 students in any given year are not taught by a teacher that meets the state standards. Especially for newcomers, the first years are critical for laying a strong foundation for a joyful and fulfilling vocation. Finding your niche and adjusting to the new culture is a process of discovery. Relationships are your most important asset as a teacher, and they are built over time.

We know the challenges new teachers face: the high cost of living, a competitive housing market, cultural differences, gaining the respect of and connecting to your students. But we are grateful for the rain that brings rainbows and so want to focus on the lesser-known benefits of teaching in Hawai’i:

Respect for Teachers

Hawaiians have a particularly strong admiration for educators, so much so that they hold special esteem within the community. “I’ve never seen anyone respect teachers the way students in Hawaii do once they get to know you,” says [science teacher Jim Cox]. “And it’s not just the students. Everyone in the community respects us for the work we do. They know that we’re committed to our keiki (kids), and keiki are the islands’ most valuable treasure. So I take pride in the job I’ve been entrusted with.”

School Spirit

Mainland schools have their Friday night lights, but in Hawai’i, school spirit is so strong that it bleeds out into the surrounding community. In some ways, residents identify more with the nearby high school than their town name. That leads to strong ties between teachers and the community. School culture also tends to be more supportive than that on the mainland.

Laidback Lifestyle

Being on island time means gaining a new perspective on life. And it’s more than just the opportunity to hit the beach whenever the urge strikes. Hawaiian culture reveres tranquility and nature, and that’s reflected in everyday school activities, from the soft Hawaiian melodies that signal the start and end of class periods to the ​​crowing of roosters and clucking of chickens outside the class window.

Expanded Classrooms

Hawai’i boasts 10 of the fourteen recognized climate zones, meaning STEM teachers have the whole of the islands as their science lab. Class trips to learn about tides and volcanoes are a matter of course.

Job Security

Hawai’i is one of the few states that still offers tenure to qualified teachers, meaning increased job security for those who qualify.

Job Support

The state education system offers numerous programs to support teachers, especially those in their first few years, including the Teacher Induction Program and mentorship opportunities.

Cultural Diversity

The state boasts the largest population of multiracial residents — almost a quarter of Hawaiian residents are from more than one ethnic background, more than in any other state. Hawaiians like to joke that the state is less a melting pot and more a bowl of fried rice — where all the various ingredients work together to enhance the overall flavor and enjoyment of the meal.

Waianae High School - Photo by Rachel So (CC)

We want to partner with you on this journey. Together we can support each other through the ups and the downs. This journey will require your full self — your passion, your grit, and your intelligence. And not just yours alone — all of our gifts are required.

Our future is out there, in the hearts and minds of our keiki.

Come join us in shaping the future. Teach STEM in Hawai’i.

Ready to teach STEM in Hawaii?

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Aram Armstrong

Aram Armstrong is a designer, educator, and creative facilitator from Maui dedicated to bringing about positive, systemic change through his work at Generative Ventures Hawaii (http://www.generativity.us/) and Maui Mind Academy (https://www.mauimindacademy.org/).

S.T.E.M. vs. STEM: Moving to a Transdisciplinary Education System

Grant T. Aguinaldo, Envilearn, LLC STEM

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In a previous post, I explained why, as a scientist, I believe a [transdisciplinary approach is preferable to interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary ones]. That applies whether we’re talking about a particular field of science, teaching methods, or even the certification methods for those looking to teach.

There’s a particular irony in academia in that universities produce some of the world’s greatest discoveries and innovations, yet the environment in which these advances are made is often averse to change itself — which is why almost every state in the country finds itself licensing and certifying K-12 teachers via a system that is all but outdated. And that’s created a teacher shortage — and an even greater STEM teacher shortage.

Applying the Transdisciplinary Approach to Teacher Certification

Simply put, states still teach and license teachers based on a S.T.E.M. (single-disciplinary) approach rather than a STEM (transdisciplinary approach). (See [my previous post] for why I chose to use those terms.) Those disciplines’ old silo walls need to come tumbling down. Individual disciplines are taught in isolation from one another: There is little to no interaction between the disciplines, as well as no connections to how the material can be used in everyday situations. What’s more important in education than teaching how to apply knowledge to real life? And who better to teach such examples than those who have done so firsthand?

Not only do K-12 schools need to take a transdisciplinary approach to teaching so that students are better prepared for the real world, but they also need to hire teachers with real-world experience. And under the current licensing rubric (which is, of course, S.T.E.M., not STEM), the very individuals best poised to impart such knowledge are the ones being held back from doing so.

Because the certification process seems to preclude them, many STEM professionals never even consider teaching, when in fact their experience would make them the most effective educators.

STEM’s Bright Future

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, STEM occupations are expected to grow at more than twice the rate than that of all other occupations (8% versus 3.7%, respectively). Not only that, but STEM careers have proven to be far more stable: According to the 2020 STEM Job Growth Index, during the coronavirus pandemic, those with STEM careers saw half the unemployment rate as those with only a high school diploma.

We will not be giving our students the ability to obtain such desirable, reliable careers if we limit the way they are taught and by whom they are taught. To provide the best possible chances of entering a STEM occupation, students need teachers who understand how all the components of STEM work together — and the best people to do that are those who already have the experience in doing so: STEM professionals.

About the Author

Grant T. Aguinaldo, Envilearn, LLC

Grant is a principal at Envera Consulting. As the Sherlock Holmes of environmental consulting, Grant solves current-day problems using modern tools. More on Twitter or LinkedIn. grant@grantaguinaldo.com

Approaches to Education: Interdisciplinary vs. Multidisciplinary vs. Transdisciplinary

Grant T. Aguinaldo, Envilearn, LLC STEM

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Aristotle is commonly quoted as saying that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

That phrase should be kept top of mind when discussing any aspect of STEM, whether in regard to certification or in the classroom. However, many institutions still keep each of the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math) in rigorous silos, with very little — if any — integration between them. This is in spite of the growing trend of making STEM transdisciplinary. I like to think of the difference between these two approaches as STEM vs. S.T.E.M.

Taking a Transdisciplinary Approach

As a scientist, I prefer the transdisciplinary, or STEM, approach, which goes a step beyond even interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approaches. Here’s what each of these terms means.

A multidisciplinary approach is one where several disciplines work independently — with little to no collaboration — toward a solution. Climate change, for example, is a problem often tackled by disciplines as diverse as engineering, chemistry, policy, and finance. Because each discipline works within its own silo, they often develop solutions that are not feasible when considered through the lens of another discipline. For example, while carbon capture may be a feasible solution from a chemistry perspective, it may not be a viable financial option due to the high capital costs for the technology.

On the other hand, an interdisciplinary approach uses a level of integration between disciplines, who share a common language and techniques. Using the carbon capture example, an interdisciplinary team would seek a solution that is viable both financially and scientifically. Information from the finance team could be used to guide the scientific developments of the technology, and vice versa.

A transdisciplinary approach integrates disciplines even further, transcending the traditional boundaries to solve a problem regardless of the disciplines involved. Each discipline is fluent in the tools, techniques, and language of the others, and together they all share a general framework for thinking about problem-solving. A transdisciplinary approach would tackle the carbon capture problem by creating a constant flow of information between the disciplines, with no traditional discipline boundaries to impede it. In fact, the disciplines aren’t even seen as individual groups; instead, everyone working on the problem is part of a single team, which continuously iterates to understand the drivers that contribute to the cost and functionality of carbon capture.

Benefits of a Transdisciplinary Approach

Simply speaking, a transdisciplinary approach is the notion that new ideas are often merely a combination of many old ideas. That’s the basic premise behind Frans Johansson’s The Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation. In a post from my website Missing Data, I described the book this way:

Johannson’s book revolves around the concept of forming new ideas by bringing together seemingly unrelated disciplines, which, as patrons of the arts and banking moguls, the Medicis unwittingly did, thus — many claim — spurring the Renaissance. In effect, says Johannson, the melding of old concepts to spawn innovation was due to the Medicis’ patronage, which brought together unrelated industries and allowed for a then-unorthodox exchange of ideas.

So transdisciplinary problem-solving isn’t really new. And if it worked for the Medicis (and Europe in general), it can work for education.

A slightly more modern example than Renaissance Italy is the California Water Data Challenge, which unites the data community in the quest to bring safe, clean, and affordable drinking water to the citizens. In the words of the challenge’s organizers:

Data has the power to help us see challenges through different lenses, discover solutions that may not otherwise be evident, and put tools into the hands of those who need them most — empowering the community to work together in new ways.

That’s pretty much the essence of a transdisciplinary approach. To further underscore that notion, the challenge provides a wealth of open data portals, which participants are encouraged to view through whichever lenses they wish — biological, economic, ecologic, or what have you. Just look at the breadth of the challenge’s previous projects.

Binghamton University has found the transdisciplinary approach to be so successful that in 2013, it developed a new approach to hiring faculty and supporting research through its Transdisciplinary Areas of Excellence (TAEs). Binghamton believes that these six varied disciplines — ranging from citizenship to data science — “can best be addressed by teams of faculty employing the perspectives and methodologies of multiple disciplines.” In other words, each of these world issues can best be tackled by team of experts with diverse areas of expertise. Some of the specific projects the TAEs are tackling include reducing the cost of solar power and enhancing energy efficiency, developing methods for efficiently operating electronic systems, and addressing watershed problems on local, regional and global scales.

As a scientist, I of course prefer the transdisciplinary, or STEM, approach, as it goes well beyond the other two approaches. But it’s not just science that can benefit from transdisciplinary methodology.

In my guest post for Teach STEM in Hawaii, I discuss how [teacher certification can benefit from the transdisciplinary approach].

About the Author

Grant T. Aguinaldo, Envilearn, LLC

Grant is a principal at Envera Consulting. As the Sherlock Holmes of environmental consulting, Grant solves current-day problems using modern tools. More on Twitter or LinkedIn. grant@grantaguinaldo.com

Teaching in Hawaii: An Experience Like No Other

Jim Cox STEM

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A little over two decades ago, I accidentally drove my truck over a twenty-foot cliff in the snow and ice of Boulder, Colorado. I survived without a scratch. As I walked away from the wreck, I made myself a promise: that for the rest of my life, I would give back more than I took. That was how I made the leap from a salaried corporate career as a hydrogeologist to high school science teacher. After getting my master's in education, I left my Boulder life behind and moved to Hawaii. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.

Don’t get me wrong. My previous career was a good, solid one, one that I would recommend to any of my students. But after more than a decade working for corporations, I’d lost the passion and drive. I’d also found myself working for a company that was asking me to use my brain, but not my heart. I hadn’t gotten into hydrogeology for that. I got into it because I love science, but my job had not only ceased to be fulfilling, it was also now draining my spirit. In the more than two decades since leaving my old job, I’ve taught every grade from sixth to twelfth, in pretty much every area of science. For the last ten years or so, I've been teaching physics and environmental science at Kapa’a High School. I planned on retiring last year, at age 67, but I knew that our school would already be going through a difficult time due to the pandemic, and I just wasn’t going to leave them in the lurch. You don’t do that to your ohana (the Hawaiian word for family). So I stayed an extra year.

I may have taken a cut in pay, but I’ve grown richer in so many other ways that I’d never expected. For one, I’ve never seen anyone respect teachers the way students in Hawaii do once they get to know you. And it’s not just the students. Everyone in the community respects us for the work we do. They know that we’re committed to our keiki (kids), and keiki are the islands’ most valuable treasure. So I take pride in the job I’ve been entrusted with. Teaching is a responsibility. Our community is counting on us to prepare the keiki for the future.

It was tough when I first started teaching in Hawaii, but that’s changed. People learned more about me and respect me because I'm a teacher. I once had a repairman come to fix my washing machine, and when he found out I was a teacher, he refused to accept payment. “This is on me,” he said. “You're a teacher. You take care of our kids. I take care of you.” That's indicative of Hawaiian culture. You're valued because you're taking care of the keiki. And in Hawaii, there is nothing more important than our kids.

I teach my students that when you have mutual respect, you can accomplish anything. When I was a teenager, I promised myself I would never forget what it was like to be that age. If you had told my friends or teachers in high school that I would one day be a teacher, they would have fallen on the ground laughing. At that age, there were only two things adults had that I was interested in: car keys and respect. When an adult showed me respect, I felt valued. And so I make it a point to show my students respect. I respect them. And I tell them they don’t have to respect me right off the bat, but at least give me the chance to earn their respect. I have found respect to be a fundamental value in everything I do.

Even the rascals (a local term for troublemakers) have touched me. I've always had this really close relationship with the rascals, as well as with the kids I know who will go off to a prestigious far-away college. The art of teaching lies in the ability to motivate and instill interest, and I enjoy the challenge of getting a rascal interested. I’ve developed some deep bonds with my schools’ rascals, and I’m honored to be called uncle (a Hawaiian term of endearment) by many of them.

I’m grateful for having the opportunity to teach in a place as unique and beautiful as Hawaii. Nowhere else could I take my students on whale-watching excursions, to the ocean and tidepools for science experiments, and to volcanoes to study earth science in action. I’ve also had the chance to work with the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute to create a program called Volcanoes Alive!, a culturally based method of teaching science through stories and culture. I’ve also found several opportunities to work with educators on the mainland.

As much as I cherish my experiences as a transplant teaching in Hawaii, I want to encourage people who grew up here to come back and teach. There is greatness in our islands. Many people who grow up in Hawaii forget that once they move away to study or work. But all of their experience would be a boon for our keiki. So once you’ve gone away and had the time to explore, I really do hope you come back. If you go straight to teaching from college, that’s great. But even better is to share real-world experiences. Nothing beats that.

I’ve never met a bad kid in Hawaii. Even with the rascals, if you scratch the surface just a little bit, you’ll find kindness. That's what makes Hawaii so special. It's not the waterfalls. It's not the beaches. It's not the weather. It's the people. I have never met a better group of people in my life. And the keiki are the most special of all, because they’re our future.
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Jim Cox

Jim Cox has been teaching science in Kapa'a on the Garden Island of Kaua'i for 21 years. For the past 12 years, he has been teaching physics and environmental science at Kapa’a High School. In the rare moments when he is not lesson planning, grading papers, or reading science articles, he enjoys playing softball in the Kaua'i senior softball league and hiking among the endemic and indigenous species in Kōke’e State Park.

Students and teacher sitting outside in Hawaii

Teach Maui: STEM Teachers Needed

Debra Nakama STEM

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For those seeking to share their love and knowledge of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) through teaching, you couldn’t find a better place than Maui. The county has not just acknowledged the need for more STEM educators, it has made an earnest commitment to increase its opportunities in STEM learning.

This past summer, Maui County Mayor Mike Victorino officially proclaimed August 10-15, 2020 as STEM Week in Maui. Mayor Victorino said, “STEM education is needed to prepare our state’s youth for high-growth, high-demand careers in computer science, engineering, cyber security, health, life and physical sciences, and math fields. And, we encourage the public to support organizations such as Maui Economic Development Board (MEDB) that are helping to build, grow, and strengthen Hawai‘i’s STEM education-to-workforce pipeline.”

In a Facebook post announcing the proclamation, the County of Maui shared some of the progress it has made in this endeavor. For one, since MEDB launched the Ke Alahele Education Fund in 2006, it has provided 344 grants to support “students’ needs for STEM equipment, robotics programs, media labs, environmental/sustainability projects, internships, teacher training and more.”

Also, the University of Hawaii Maui College’s (UHMC) Chancellor Lui Hokoanaacknowledged the perceived lack of qualified candidates for high-tech jobs, and perhaps more important, the fact that minority students were falling behind their white counterparts in STEM. It is a priority at UHMC to encourage our students as well high school students in our community, especially Native Hawaiians, Filipinos and other minority students, to engage and excel at STEM.

Data from Vital Signs, an Education Commission of the United States project that provides state-by-state data on the condition of STEM education, reports that “business leaders in Hawai‘i cannot find the STEM talent they need to stay competitive.” Between 2012 and 2016, the percent of high school students in Hawai‘i interested in STEM decreased by 6%, according to a report by ACT. The same report stated that high school students who fail to meet or surpass the ACT STEM benchmark are much less likely to persevere in college and earn a STEM degree within six years.

Research shows that teachers’ content knowledge and teaching experience in STEM can affect student performance; and Hawai‘i students are less likely than their peers nationally to have experienced STEM teachers. These findings and the following statistics point to some of the STEM-related challenges Maui County faces:
  • Of the teachers hired in 2017-2018 (the most recent HISDOE Employment Report), 40% (74/186) were teaching outside their area of preparation, did not hold a teacher license, and/or do not complete a teacher training program.
  • Academic achievement at each school is below the state average in math, ranging from a shocking 15% to 34% proficiency, and all but one school is below the state average in language arts and science (ranging from 36% to 49% proficiency).
One possible reason students do not complete STEM degrees is the shortage of qualified STEM teachers. We invite STEM majors and professionals to complete our interest form to learn more about teaching STEM on Maui.
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Debra Nakama

Dr. Nakama holds a doctorate of philosophy in higher education from the UH at Manoa. As the vice chancellor of student affairs at University of Hawaii Maui College, Dr. Debra A. Nakama writes about today’s most pressing educational issues on student diversity, equity, and inclusion experiences. debranakama@gmail.com