The Doogie Howser of the DOE

Photo by Lawrence Tabudlo

Blaise Babineck isn’t your typical teenager. Even at a young age, he already has a string of significant achievements under his belt.

For starters, Babineck is believed to be the youngest teacher ever in the Hawai‘i Department of Education, which he joined last fall at the ripe age of 18. 

“It feels exciting,” Babineck says. “Going into this, I didn’t know that I would be the state’s youngest teacher ever. But once I found out, it really showed me that even though something hasn’t been done before, it’s still possible to do.”

Today, he’s a year older (he celebrated his 19th birthday last month) and wiser and, similar to the made-for-TV child doctor played by actor Neil Patrick Harris, has turned into something of a real-life prodigy in the islands. 

Like Doogie Howser, Babineck loves science — specifically, chemistry. It’s a subject he covers almost daily as the eighth-grade science teacher at King Intermediate School in Kāne‘ohe. He’s also the school’s science fair adviser and has been a key figure in reviving the long-dormant program. His students won a number of awards at the recent Windward District Science Fair and also swept the podium at October’s National Chemistry Week illustrated poetry contest. One of his pupils even captured the state poetry contest, and then placed second nationally. Meanwhile, at the Hawai‘i State Science & Engineering Fair held last week, Babineck was handed the Best Teacher Award in chemistry and his students — Daisy Menhennet, Star Segi and Emie Hinazumi — came away with the second-best chemistry award in the junior division for their project, “Dye Detective.” 

Turns out the school has been the perfect place for Babineck to guide science-minded students while also rubbing shoulders with many encouraging peers.

“The (King Intermediate) administration was super helpful, supportive, kind, welcoming … so I felt like this was the right opportunity for me,” Babineck says. 

Although his classes are made up of 13 and 14 year olds, Babineck says it doesn’t feel weird to be only a few years older than his students. To the contrary, he considers it a win-win. 

“They still understand that I have a lot more knowledge to share with them, but it also makes me more relatable to them being closer in age,” Babineck declares. “It makes it easier to build things like trust and it makes me able to communicate content and things more relevantly, connecting it to things young people today are passionate about.” 

Likewise, he doesn’t find it strange to be so much younger than his co-workers.

“I have no issues getting along with my fellow teachers and colleagues here at King,” he says. 

Part of his adoration for the Windward O‘ahu campus is rooted in being a small rural school with student demographics similar to the schools he grew up attending in West O‘ahu. It’s also located along Kāne‘ohe Bay, offering science students unique opportunities to partner on projects with environmental and Native Hawaiian cultural groups caring for fishponds and taro patches in the area. 

Currently, Babineck teaches 130 eighth-grade students in six different sections of science. In the mix are keiki of all academic abilities and backgrounds.

One of them is Lilly Balukoff, who gushes about  Babineck making science “relatable and fun.”

“One experiment he showed us was with the properties of liquid nitrogen,” she says. “We used it to make ice cream and we got to see how the liquid nitrogen turned into a gas, while at the same time, the liquid mixture turned into the ice cream.” 

When Babineck joined King Intermediate’s faculty, he was only a few months removed from earning his degree in chemistry from Hawai‘i Pacific University and, remarkably, being named its valedictorian.

“I graduated HPU in May of 2023 … and part of that honor was giving an address at the commencement ceremony. So, I gave a speech about my experiences and what I got out of HPU, and encouraged my fellow classmates at the Hawai‘i Convention Center, in front of 4,000 people,” explains Babineck. 

The fledgling teacher grew up in ‘Ewa Beach, the oldest of two sons born to a construction industry worker, Michael, and a stay-at-home mom, Junim. He credits his eighth-grade science teacher at the now-closed Our Lady of Perpetual Help School with making science fun for him. In the eighth grade, he entered his school’s science fair and walked away with first-place honors. He also captured third place at the district competition and followed that up by securing a second-place finish at the state fair.

“That really showed me that my interest in science could turn into something more than just an interest and that maybe a career in science was possible for me,” says Babineck.

As fate would have it, he applied to Maryknoll School and received a scholarship that covered a substantial part of the tuition. Once on campus, he was further drawn to science thanks to two instructors: Lauren Gardner-Roulston, who impressed him with her master’s degree in cellular molecular biology and background in scientific research; and AP (advanced placement) chemistry teacher Derek Birkmire, who he says made class “super fun.”

In time, Babineck became so well versed in the subject matter that he was able to help his classmates — many of whom were older high school students — to understand the content. 

With Birkmire’s encouragement, Babineck decided to register for upper-division chemistry classes at HPU. He wound up passing with a score of 5 on the AP chemistry exam, which allowed him “to take organic chemistry and analytical chemistry the following fall when I was just 16 years old.”

An individual who scores a 5 on the exam is considered extremely well qualified in the subject. 

“I was navigating Hawai‘i Pacific University enrolled in upper division chemistry classes with college juniors and seniors,” Babineck explains. “So, some of my classmates were in their 20s, some were ex-military people in their 40s, so I was fully immersed in the university setting at 16 because I chased my interests.”

In addition to his chemistry classes at HPU, Babineck decided to get involved in research. He started off as secretary of the HPU Undergraduate Infrastructure Student Research Center and later became its president. With encouragement from his oceanography professor, David Hyrenbach, and chemistry professor, David Horgen, he also received a grant from the Health Research Concepts Competition National Institute for Health. It  allowed him to do his own research exploring the effects of chemical weathering on plastic marine debris pollutants. 

Babineck’s desire to mentor others also grew in college. After noticing his fellow students struggle in chemistry classes, he asked his professor if he could serve as a teaching assistant the following year, and the professor agreed. 

“There were people I was teaching as a 17-year-old that were much older than me, but in that teaching setting, I feel like I was respected by the students in that class and a lot of people came to me during office hours for help. I hosted weekly study sessions,” Babineck notes. 

During the middle of the following semester, another chemistry professor asked him if he could be teaching assistant for her class as well. 

“What really made me think I made a difference was that at the very end of the semester, the professor of that class came to me and she was kind of crying. And what she told me was that since I started helping out as teaching assistant, every single student’s final grade was either the same or higher than their midterm grade,” he remembers. 

Despite spending only two years each at Maryknoll and HPU, Babineck doesn’t believe he missed out on any part of the high school or college experience. 

“At Maryknoll, I was involved with student life, athletics and clubs and at HPU, likewise,” he says. “I had a lot of good college friends even though I was younger than most people.” 

By the time he graduated from HPU, Babineck was determined to enter the teaching profession. 

“I ended up deciding that I wanted to teach eighth grade, because I feel like eighth grade is a key point in lots of people’s lives,” he explains. “I feel like my eighth grade science fair experience and things like that really pushed me into high school with an open mind.”

Although school keeps him busy, Babineck finds time to participate in outdoor activities. 

“I’m a certified scuba diver,” he says. “I enjoy hikes, paddleboarding, surfing.” 

Looking ahead, Babineck sees some long-term career goals for himself that continue to revolve around education. 

“I do want to become a college professor — maybe I will teach high school sometime as well,” he says.

Right now, Babineck’s focus remains firmly planted on the success of his King Intermediate science students. His personal mission involves encouraging his students and hoping they grow to love the topic as much as their still wet-behind-the-ears instructor. 

“I want you to develop a positive relationship with science,” he emphasizes to students. “I want you guys to see that science is something that we observe in the world around us, and I want you to know if you enjoy science, there is a path for you as a career.”