Four Hawai‘i public school teachers have been awarded one of the nation's most prestigious honors for teachers — the Presidential Award of Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, or PAEMST.
Established in 1983, PAEMST is the highest award given by the U.S. government to K-12 teachers of mathematics and science, including computer science. The award alternates years between K-6 and 7-12 teachers.
The White House on Oct. 15 announced and recognized the 2017 and 2018 awardees.
Pearl City High, 7-12 Mathematics, 2017
Daphne Okunaga has been an educator for 14 years. She teaches Algebra 2, Algebra 3/Precalculus, and Introduction to College Mathematics.
Daphne was part of the pilot group to teach the Introduction to College Mathematics (ICM) course and was able to present at the Hawaii Council of Teachers of Mathematics conference about making mathematics relatable for non-STEM students. She develops projects that make mathematics meaningful for students and emphasizes financial literacy.
Daphne’s passion for mathematics goes beyond the classroom. She is the academic advisor for the football program, serves as a consultant to the American Institutes for Research for the Smarter Balanced Assessment and End of Course Exam, and serves as a teacher mentor for other ICM teachers throughout the state.
As the mathematics chairperson for five years, International Business and Design Academy Lead, and Hope Street Group Education fellow, Daphne uses social media and networking to advocate for making mathematics relevant for all students.
"The (award) means that our nation recognizes the need for all students to benefit from quality mathematics education and validates my philosophy that mathematics should be accessible to all," Daphne said. "Mathematics is not an exclusive club that demands high test scores or memorized facts for entry."
Nel Venzon Jr.
Mililani High, 7-12 Science, 2017
Nel Venzon Jr. has been a mathematics and science teacher for 14 years. He teaches regular, pre-Advanced Placement, and Advanced Placement Biology.
Nel brings his students every year to Pouhala Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary where they conduct soil and streamwater quality testing and ecosystem restoration efforts through a partnership with the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.
His students conduct authentic scientific research, focused on a wide range of community problems. His students have presented their research at the district, state, regional, national, and international level.
Nel founded the Central Oahu District Science and Engineering Fair in 2011, supporting science education in his local community. He presented his latest research at the International Science Education Conference in Singapore, engaging in global discourse relating science education research and practice. Nel has also co-authored and published papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
"I thank my students for the opportunities to share my curiosity for understanding the process and nature of science," Nel said. "As a Filipino immigrant, receiving this award is beyond living the American Dream. I share the award with all the Filipino teachers worldwide, and with all my students who took a small part of their own adventure with me."
Richard Brian Ogawa
Kanoelani Elementary, K-6 Science, 2018
Richard Brian "RB" Ogawa has been an educator at Kanoelani Elementary for more than a decade. He started his career teaching upper elementary and transitioned to being the school's STEM coordinator. RB is also responsible for developing project-based curriculum, providing teacher training and support, developing school-community partnerships, and co-teaching and modeling classroom sessions. He also is the advisor of the math club and the robotics team.
Among his accomplishments: RB initiated a science night program for multiple grade levels to involve community partners and families; he helped design and develop innovative learning spaces to include a STEM lab, a 600-gallon sustainable aquaponics system, a game design studio, and an engineering makerspace area which is utilized throughout the day.
"I firmly believe in the adage 'It takes a village to raise a child,' and know that, collectively, we have a deep responsibility to equip the next generation. This award represents my school community’s efforts and energy, and I am humbled to be a part of shaping Hawaii’s future," RB said.
Lehua Elementary, K-6 Mathematics, 2018
Daniel Taira has been an educator for nine years. He has spent the last four years teaching fifth-grade mathematics and science.
Daniel strives to create a classroom environment where students problem solve collaboratively and share their strategies with one another. He fosters a positive growth mindset in his students so that each can be successful.
He co-leads Lehua's Math Olympiad team, which competes with other local elementary schools in a variety of mathematics-based events. Students must persevere through challenging problems while working under a time limit. His team has earned multiple trophies and is a great source of pride.
Daniel has participated in a variety of professional development opportunities to further his education and continued growth as a teacher. These include Visible Learning, Leader in Me, Singapore Math, and project-based learning.
"This award serves as added motivation to continue finding new ways to make mathematics engaging and enjoyable for my students, so they can find the confidence to excel in whatever path they choose in life," Daniel said. "I am grateful for each and every colleague, friend, family member, and student that has helped me reach where I am today."
Nominees complete a rigorous application process that requires them to demonstrate their excellence in content knowledge and ability to adapt to a broad range of learners and teaching environments.
A panel of distinguished mathematicians, scientists and educators at the state and national levels assess the applications before recommending nominees to the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy. Teachers are selected based on their distinction in the classroom and dedication to improving STEM education.
Awardees represent schools in all 50 States, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) schools, and schools in the U.S. territories of Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.