two people in a classroom with fruits on the desk
Science Teachers Enrichment Program participants in the classroom.

The Science Teachers Enrichment Program (STEP), a successful 15-year partnership between Kauaʻi Community College the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG), has given K–12 and community college faculty an opportunity to become students again, engaging in hands-on learning using native and introduced plants in Hawaiʻi. STEP enhances the teachers’ knowledge of tropical biology and equips them with innovative techniques to teach their classes using an inquiry-based approach.

Brian Yamamoto (left)

“A teacher who has a passion for biological science knows that life is organic and messy,” said Brian Yamamoto, senior natural science faculty member at Kauaʻi CC. “That teacher wants students to get dirty, feel the wind as a force affecting growth and touch the textures of life, to understand that biology is more than memorization of information,” he said.

The STEP course, funded by the Kenan Foundation, is a two-week course that takes place at NTBG’s such as Kalāheo’s McBryde Gardens, the North Shore’s Limahuli Garden, Salt Pond and Kōkeʻe State Park. STEP is a 3-credit course for both the University of Hawaiʻi and Department of Education Teacher Develop Program. NTBG’s gardens, facilities and faculty serve as a resource for educational experiences that inspires student interest in science education.

According to Harvard Professor and Kenan Fellow Barry Tomilson having a “good eye” is the framework of teaching introductory biology, where students learn, through interaction, the value of observation and how the natural world connects with all academic disciplines. STEP gets teachers reconnected with their good eye, invigorates them to develop learning modules through engaging discussions on teaching pedagogy and solidifies contacts with teachers in the program.

This year, the program welcomed six teachers from California, Hawaiʻi CC, Waipahu High School, Hanalei School, Alakai Foundation and Kaimukī Middle School.

STEP students are at NTBG headquarters looking at rare books

Michelle Phillips, a Hawaiʻi CC participant, plans to take her students on field trips to explore how plants adapt to the local environment. In her pollen anatomy lab she will identify the family level using pollen species, where her students will be able to make observations and comparisons.

NTBG is currently developing a teaching garden where materials can be routinely harvested for the course. Kauaʻi CC is assembling plants from its nursery to grow at the schools.

“This is another example of a wonderful partnership between NTBG and Kauaʻi CC,” said Helen Cox, Kauaʻi CC Chancellor. “Our very knowledgeable faculty member, Brian Yamamoto, is one of the instructors in this program, and several of our faculty have taken the course. NTBG and the island of Kauaʻi provide wonderful resources for a truly valuable educational experience,” she said.

—By Camilla Matsumoto