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.”

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About the Author
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Nick Okamoto

Professor in the Mathematics department at University of Hawaii Maui College