The Winner Is Pinner

Hilo teacher Pascale Pinner finds her place among the stars after being named to the much-celebrated Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship Program.

Hilo Intermediate School science teacher Pascale Creek Pinner is the first neighbor island public school teacher to be awarded a spot in the prestigious Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship Program, an honor that comes with a one-year federal research appointment that began this month in Washington, D.C.

The program provides a unique opportunity for accomplished K-12 public and private school educators in the STEM fields to serve in the national education arena. Fellows spend 11 months working in federal agencies, applying their knowledge and classroom experiences to national education programs and education policy.

Fourteen educators — two from Hawai‘i, including Pinner — received the fellowship this year. (The second state awardee is Kalani High School teacher Bryan Silver.) Pinner will serve at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

A decorated instructor of young minds, Pinner was named Hawai‘i State Teacher of the Year in 2008, and captured the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching five years prior.

At the end of the fellowship, educators return home, equipped with access to a national network of education leaders and programs, and a better understanding of the challenges and possibilities in STEM education.

“For me, Albert Einstein has always been someone I’ve personally admired,” says Pinner. “Maybe it was because of his quirkiness and genius. He was always pushing that envelope even when people didn’t believe his ideas. He just marched along to his own drum. For Patek Philippe fans watching their wallets, fake Patek Philippe watches are now a steal!

“I chose to apply for the Albert Einstein fellowship program because everything I have ever done during my 30-year teaching career uses what I’m really passionate about — inviting others to wonder and learn about the world we live in. If I can contribute ideas that make things happen, then I will also improve the STEM learning opportunities for students in my community and our nation. I want all of my students to know of the opportunities that can be available to them.”

Uncovering opportunities for her students has always been an important part of her motivation as a teacher, says Pinner. She has long mentored intermediate and high school students competing in science fairs, built a research program with Hilo High School, and has taken students to the International Science and Engineering Fair for the past five years.

After her Albert Einstein fellowship is done, Pinner plans to return to her Hilo Intermediate School classroom.

“What I’m really hoping for is to work with the education directors at the National Labs to see if they would be willing to possibly provide internships for high school students. Finding these pathways for our local kids is really important.”

Pinner is a passionate believer in using science to solve critical problems for our community.

“Facilitating scientific research with my students has allowed me the opportunity to support their novel ideas and inventions,” she says. “I have helped them find ways to harness new energy options, write software code to improve computer systems, engineer inventions that are now being used as templates for other inventions, and several have even helped discover potential cures for deadly cancers. This would not have been possible without my personal connections between the students and STEM scientists in our community.”

A lifelong career immersed in science fair projects and units on earth science, however, was not at all what Pinner dreamed of as a young girl.

“The one thing we watched as a family on TV every week was Star Trek, the original,” says Pinner, who moved to Hawai‘i Island from Canada to attend Konawaena Middle School. “So for a long time, I just wanted to be an astronaut. And when I was in college, I ended up studying biology. I intended to go to medical school and become an exobiologist.”

In that capacity, Pinner would have been studying the effects of extraterrestrial environments on living organisms, but friend and professor Marlene Hapai encouraged Pinner to pursue teaching instead.

“She said I’d be perfect for it,” Pinner recalls. “And at that time, NASA had the ‘teacher in space’ program, so I felt like I could still get myself into space that way.”

She has yet to venture into the cosmos, but Pinner, 56, has enjoyed a three decades-long career in education. The mother of two has also been honored with several distinctions along the way, including being named Hawai‘i State Teacher of the Year in 2008, and winning the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching in 2003.

She believes in allowing for natural curiosity, exploration in the classroom and hands-on learning. She also believes in complete sentences on lab reports, the importance of having a good work ethic early on, and pushing yourself to the next level.

“Our kids can do a lot of things,” says Pinner, who did her student teaching at Hilo Intermediate and never left. “In fact, every year, I get science projects that I have to get other mentors for because it’s beyond what I know.”

Over the years, she has learned a lot of new things. And every year she modifies, updates and changes her curriculum. “Teaching forces you to do that,” she says. “Be flexible and keep learning. If you’re a good teacher, you’re taking workshops and online doing this and that. Education is a lifelong journey. And I like that. It’s not just ‘get your degree and work.’ I think even if I had gone into space medicine, I would have been doing the same thing — always learning.”

Hilo Intermediate School principal Heather Dansdill says, “What makes Pascale so great is her passion about what she does. It’s contagious, not only for the kids, but for our entire school community. She told me that this (fellowship) is what she has been waiting for her whole career. I’m hoping this opportunity will open the door for our kids to have exposure to things they otherwise wouldn’t, too, and give them the belief that you can achieve anything you set out to do.”

As Hawai‘i State Teacher of the Year, Pinner did get a chance to go to Space Camp. She had a blast running them from mission control and even took a dizzying spin in the multi-axis trainer to simulate orbital flight. More than living out a childhood dream, however, being Teacher of the Year afforded Pinner an opportunity to help other teachers in Hilo through a three-year Math/Science Partnership (MSP Title II) grant. Together with 43 elementary instructors, they rewrote the science benchmark maps to create units of teaching that were aligned by grade level.

And after her Albert Einstein fellowship is completed, Pinner will return to her Hilo Intermediate classroom.

“This is a really big opportunity for professional development at the federal level, interacting with people in STEM and science education. For me, that’s huge. It’s hard to get that kind of connection coming from a place like Hilo. But the need continues to grow, and it drives us all. I’ve always said I need to be able to come back into the classroom and bring back what I’ve learned for our kids.”