A Teacher’s Influence

Here in Hawaii, we celebrate and cheer for those who have brought honor and pride to our state. We are a close-knit and proud community, which is why we are especially proud of people like President Obama, Michelle Wie, Marcus Mariota, or Little League world champions. Jennifer Doudna, who recently won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry with a colleague from Sweden, joins this list. Most of us had never heard of her until we saw the headlines that she graduated from Hilo High School on Hawaii island, and then we embraced her.

I love reading stories of inspirational teachers, and this story was a reason to celebrate. (“Remembering the Hilo Teacher Who Inspired a Nobel Prize Winner”)  Miss Wong was a young, new teacher when Jennifer Doudna entered her chemistry class as a tenth grader. “Miss Wong was big,” she shared. “She taught us that science is about discovery. It’s not about memorizing facts in the textbook. It’s about asking questions about the natural world and coming up with ways to figure out answers.”  How I wish I had a teacher like Miss Wong! While I remember dissecting an earthworm and a frog in Biology and doing some experiments in Chemistry, science for me was mostly learned from textbooks, and unfortunately, much of what I learned then was forgotten shortly after the test. 

My younger brother, Chris Amemiya, is the person who influenced me as a teacher to make science exciting for my students. “Science is all around,” he shared with me. “Kids are curious; have them ask questions about the world around them and discover answers together.” I remember that as a high school student, Chris worked on a 4-year science project examining the pituitary glands of Tilapia mossambica to see if they could slowly adapt from a freshwater to a seawater environment. Today, he has a PhD in genetics, is a professor at UC-Merced, and continues to learn. He collaborates on projects with scientists from all over the world. I truly believe that Chris was already interested in science when he got to high school, but his teacher recognized that working on a real-life project would give him the tools he would need in whatever field he chose to go into later in life. 

As educators, it’s not just about sciencing. It’s about igniting a passion in students for something they are interested in learning more about. It could be mathematics or history or art or music or literature or sports. Whatever it is, we should encourage students to ask questions and then teach them the skills they will need to explore and discover on their own or with others who have similar interests. With technology so readily available and mentors who are eager to support our young people, education can be much more meaningful for our youngsters.

I wish that Miss Wong could have lived long enough to see one of her students become a Nobel Prize winner. I am sure, though, that she is smiling proudly from above. Teachers have the power to influence and impact their students; let’s make sure we are helping the next generation to explore and discover answers to their questions by working on real-world problems just like Miss Wong did with her students.