Associate Professor of Education Tobias Irish educates his students to be culturally responsive teachers in Hawai‘i schools.
An associate professor of education at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo who specializes in scientific literacy and equity issues in education has received tenure.
Tobias Irish, who joined the university’s School of Education in 2015, says his most significant contribution to the university and local community is in addressing the severe teacher shortage in Hawai‘i, specifically on Hawai‘i Island, through the school’s high-quality graduate programs.
“Keiki need skilled and compassionate teachers,” he says, noting that he places a high priority on supporting the dreams of students who aspire to become teachers.
“From an education standpoint, we provide the local schools with highly skilled, culturally responsive teachers who are well prepared to work in schools in Hawai‘i,” he explains.
For his extraordinary work in teaching, Irish received the UH Hilo College of Arts and Sciences Faculty Achievement Award in 2020 for his “meritorious service for students.” Nomination papers for the award note “he embraces helping students across campus achieve their academic [and] research goals.”
Noted in the nomination are his facilitation of undergraduates’ research projects and theses, and mentorship to students studying Pacific Island cultures. Two of Tobias’s undergraduate research apprentices presented their study with him at the National Association for Research in Science Teaching Conference. Further, they were collaborative authors of the proceedings paper accepted for publication.
Further, the award recognized Tobias’s mentorship of a graduate student working at ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center. Irish helped her through her research project and helped her publish her study, as sole author, in Planetarium Journal, a publication of the International Planetarium Society.
In addition to educating future teachers, Irish conducts research about the teaching and learning of science in K-12 schools. He says the work is “about finding ways to facilitate more contextually relevant and personally meaningful science instruction in K-12 learning environments.” A 2018 case study, published in the International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, focuses on students’ conceptual understandings from out-of-school experiences while reasoning about scientific concepts.
The Hawaii Department of Education called upon Tobias to serve as a Science Test-Item Reviewer for 8th grade and high school standardized test items, based upon the Next Generation Science Standards. He was also a Mathematics Standards Reviewer of the Common Core State Standards for middle and elementary school special-education mathematics.
He has also published works about student interpretation, knowledge, and attitudes toward data exploration.
Irish’s local outreach activity includes supporting elementary and high schools by evaluating senior projects and science projects, mentoring, or advising student interns, and serving on advisory boards.
He says that he particularly enjoys working with students who participate in interactive design challenges such as robotics activities. He co-designed and co-led a STEM Engineering Challenge workshop in 2020 for 4th graders from Mountain View Elementary school.
Previously, he helped develop and taught at the Nā Hopena A‘o (HĀ Summit) 2019, held in Waimea on Hawai‘i Island, where he prepared teachers to implement culturally relevant instruction in the state of Hawai‘i.
He also serves on the advisory board of Waiakea High School’s Public Services Academy, a career development program.
Service to the Pacific region
Irish’s work also includes boosting students throughout Hawai‘i and the Pacific region into careers in science, technology, engineering or math, commonly called the STEM fields. A current project is to increase the number of underrepresented students, particularly Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders, who graduate from universities and colleges with degrees in STEM.
For this project, Irish is working with Joseph Genz, associate professor of anthropology and director of a federal program based at UH Hilo called the Islands of Opportunity Alliance. IOA is an 11-campus alliance of colleges and universities across the U.S.-affiliated Pacific that support underrepresented students through mentorship, research experiences, tutoring, and advising.
Members of the alliance are American Samoa Community College, College of the Marshall Islands, College of Micronesia—FSM, Chaminade University of Honolulu, Guam Community College, Hawai‘i Pacific University, Northern Marianas College, Palau Community College, University of Guam, and UH Mānoa. The group seeks not only to increase the number of STEM graduates in the Pacific, but also investigate how cultural understandings in the Pacific impact those numbers.
“My primary role in this project is as a researcher working to better understand how university and college programs can best be designed to be responsive to the needs, interests, and values of Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders,” says Irish.
Irish and Genz’s project includes faculty members and undergraduate research apprentices from UH Hilo and the University of Guam. The work involves conducting interviews with students and faculty at each of the 11 campuses in the alliance.
- To learn more about these studies, see NSF recognizes students for their research into Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander STEM students (Dec. 1, 2021, UH Hilo Stories)
Irish hopes to use the findings to improve and expand upon the design of effective STEM programs, curricula, and research opportunities for all colleges associated with the program, and the greater educational community as well.
“From a research standpoint we work to facilitate more relevant and more culturally responsive education opportunities for Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders in institutions of higher education throughout Oceania.”
Working with the University of Guam brings Irish full circle. He received his bachelor’s degree in secondary education with a minor in agriculture from UOG in 1999 and served in multiple instructional capacities with the Guam Department of Education until 2002. He won the Distinguished Service Award from the Guam DOE in 2001.
Irish received his master of education in curriculum and instruction from University of Nevada Las Vegas in 2008 and his doctor of philosophy in science education with a minor in environmental science from Oregon State University in 2012. He completed his postdoctoral research at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York where he worked in ecological data exploration for secondary students.
Looking to the future, he says he is excited to receive tenure and hopes to extend his support of students both inside and outside traditional classroom education.
By Jordan Hemmerly, who is earning her bachelor’s degree in marine science at UH Hilo.