Whitney Aragaki, a University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa College of Education (COE) Department of Curriculum Studies (EDCS) doctoral student, is the 2022 Hawaiʻi State Teacher of the Year. She was among 16 complex area finalists, including 10 COE alumni, and will go on to compete at the national level.
“Whitney’s doctoral work and teaching practice serve as exemplars to the field of science education,” said EDCS Professor Tara O’Neill. “It is an honor to work with her as her advisor in her efforts to create more equitable and justice-oriented teaching and learning spaces.”
A National Board Certified Teacher, Aragaki comes from a family of educators. She teaches at her alma mater Waiākea High School in Hilo, where her mom was a biology teacher. Her father was a carpentry instructor at Hawaiʻi Community College.
Every day is an adventure and challenges me to openly and honestly see each one of my students as amazing individuals…
“I grew up in my mom’s classroom, watching her teach, mentor and impact cohorts of students,” Aragaki shared. “I spent nights and weekends with her as she and her students prepared science fair projects, worked on symposia and ventured around the island to truly experience the beauty of nature. The experiences from both of my educator parents helped me to develop a sense of kuleana [responsibility] to serve my community in any capacity, and I found education as a pathway where I can contribute to my Waiākea community that has given me so much.”
After completing her undergraduate studies on the mainland, Aragaki said it was difficult to return home and enroll as a distance learner at COE. She was able to fly to Oʻahu for some in-person meetings with financial support from EDCS Professor Pauline Chinn’s Place-based and Sustainability Education cohort and the Hawaiʻi Science and Technology Museum in Hilo.
“When I finally applied and was accepted into the curriculum and instruction PhD program, I had to choose online courses or professors who were willing to be flexible with me—Zooming at times and flying over to attend class at other times,” Aragaki said. “While the pivot to online learning in spring 2020 allowed me to participate equitably with my classmates, I am so thankful to COE for taking a chance on me. It really is breaking a glass ceiling for neighbor island students to pursue doctoral studies and work with so many amazing educators and researchers around the state.”
Aragaki completed her comprehensive exams and dissertation proposal defense in May 2021. She is in the process of developing a high school biology curriculum that is grounded in ʻāina aloha (love of the land) through the investigation of how the learning experience transforms participants’ perspectives of self and sense of belonging and responsibility in science, community and the environment.
“I truly enjoy working with students,” Aragaki concluded. “Every day is an adventure and challenges me to openly and honestly see each one of my students as amazing individuals that bring their own light and joy into our school spaces. I enjoy connecting with the families of my community and learn so much from them as well.”
—By Jennifer Parks