Persistence, respect for the sea widen horizon for teacher

Staff WriterJune 14, 2014 

Kainoa Higgins, left, an oceanography teacher with Tacoma Science and Math Institute, helps former student Grant Carrillo with a home-made buoy Wednesday, collecting information in Point Defiance Park.


When he was born in Hawaii, where his father and grandfather were high school teachers, Kainoa Higgins inherited a prophetic name and a clear career path.

“My name is Hawaiian and means ‘Spirit of the Sea’,” he said of his first name (pronounced kay-noah).

“My brother’s name is Sam.”

After growing up an islander, Higgins had to make a mainland college decision.

His parents wanted him to know more about life than living only in Hawaii. Oregon State University wanted him for its marching band and offered a scholarship. He went a different direction — to Tacoma.

“I wanted to play football and knew I didn’t have the talent for a big-school program,” Higgins said. “The University of Puget Sound offered me a scholarship, let me play football, and all their buildings looked like old castles.

“It was like a school from a Harry Potter book.”

Professor Amy Ryken from the UPS school of education remembered Higgins.

“He has a kind of calmness that allows him to be serious without being anxious,” Ryken said. “He communicates with kids well, makes them feel important.”

And there was one other thing.

“Kainoa had a profound love of marine wildlife and marine ecology,” she said.

After getting his master’s in teaching in 2008, Higgins began his career at Tacoma School of the Arts, initially teaching chemistry and biology. In his second and final year at SOTA, he landed a specialty that suited him.

“I inherited an oceanography program that didn’t have many concrete resources.”

The University of Washington had a partner program with high schools, allowing them to teach a university-level course. Higgins applied and was given the opportunity to offer Oceanography 101.

He started teaching it at the Science and Math Institute — another small, nontraditional Tacoma public high school — and he’s continued there for four years.

“Students taking the class could apply for college credits for it,” Higgins said. “Through that, we got our hands on resources, and the SAMI campus had easy access to the Point Defiance waterfront to use as a lab.

“Puget Sound is a phenomenal marine environment to study.”

Higgins and his students took their work seriously, studying plankton under microscopes, photographing life from the Sound one drop at a time. One student built a sea buoy and equipped it with electronics that took readings from the water that could be downloaded to hard drives.

“This was a dream job in a dream location,” Higgins said. “I love the region, and I love living in Tacoma. People laugh, but I’d take summers here over the summers in Hawaii.

“And even when it’s gray and raining, you can catch steelhead trout.”

If there was anything Higgins felt he was missing, it was field research. He spent a half-year studying in New Zealand while in college. To keep his teaching fresh, he thought he needed more.

Enter professor Ryken. She heard about the Teacher at Sea program sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“When I saw that one, the first person I thought of was Kainoa.”

He applied — and was rejected.

“I was rejected each of the first three years I applied, then was wait-listed this year as an alternate,” Higgins said. “Then I was accepted, and I’m heading on a 16-day cruise that will be a biology/fisheries trip that will allow me to learn more about my personal passion — plankton.

“The ship I’ll be aboard is 170 feet long with a crew of eight. There’s a research team of 10 to 12, with dry and wet labs. I’ll be aboard with two different crews, because they’ll change about 10 days in.”

Ryken is delighted with her former student’s acceptance — and the fact he was not discouraged by rejection.

“It’s an incredibly competitive program, with hundreds of teachers applying for 10 to 30 positions each year,” she said. “Kainoa’s persistence is admirable. That’s a quality all good teachers need.”

The trip, which starts next week, will include time at sea off the coasts of Oregon and Northern California. And it will have an effect on Higgins’ SAMI classes next year.

“Part of teaching is making the reading of books on the subject relevant,” he said. “But to be able to talk about a project and say, ‘This is how they do it aboard the Ocean Starr,’ that’s much more immediate, more hands-on.”

Among the requirements of the cruise, Higgins must blog two to four times a week, come up with a least two lessons from the experience and present them.

What might seem like hard work to some is a natural progression for the 28-year-old teacher.

“Growing up, I was always engaged with the sea, taught to appreciate the ocean. There’s an expression there, ‘malama ’aina,’ that means ‘care for the land,’ and in Hawaii that means the sea, too.”

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638 larry.larue@

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