Husband-and-wife team help college make STEM strides

KA‘ANA MANA‘O

STEM. The ubiquitous 21st century acronym that stands for science, technology, engineering, math.

Students who excel in these disciplines are destined for great professional futures, so STEM is a central focus here at University of Hawaii Maui College.

We’re fortunate to have a talented husband-and-wife team on our science faculty who aim to help our college make big strides in these important fields of study. They are also representative of the diversity of our campus and our community, something meaningful to all of us in Maui nei.

Originally from Ohio, associate professor of chemistry Mike Ferguson arrived in Hawaii 12 years ago with some pretty impressive credentials including a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley and post-doctorate work at the Hungarian Academy for Sciences in Budapest. After 11 years at Honolulu Community College, he joined our faculty this year. And so did his wife, astronomy instructor Hsin-Yi (Jenny) Shih. Born in Taiwan and raised in Malaysia, she comes with her own set of impressive credentials, including an undergraduate degree from UCLA and a Ph.D. in astronomy from UH-Manoa.

Their respective inspirations for becoming educators could not be more different — or more interesting. “I am inspired by my family history,” explains Ferguson. “I am a fourth-generation chemist. My great-grandfather was a chemistry professor, too. My father also has a Ph.D. in chemistry, and in my youth I wished to emulate him. My parents met in chemistry class.” He adds that it mostly comes down to the fact that he loves science and he constantly thinks about and analyzes how the world works.

Now, Shih, on the other hand, says “When I was in high school, I had a dream about meeting aliens one night and that inspired me to study astronomy. I want to know what our universe is made of and whether finding life elsewhere is a real possibility. I want to share my knowledge of and fascination about the universe with a wider audience so I decided to switch from being a researcher to a teacher.”

Our unique cultural mix always figures in what our faculty members, most notably those who come from other places, learn from our students. “We have learned that everyone here has a story and many students live complicated lives. Our undergraduate experience was quite different from that of our students, who often have significant workloads and family responsibilities outside of class. This makes working with them both challenging and interesting,” say Ferguson and Shih.

Their educational philosophies are similar — to make each of their individual scientific disciplines accessible and practical in life. “I look to use real-world examples to teach the chemistry concepts,” says Ferguson. “I make the material tangible and meaningful to everyday life. I also look to educate the whole person so that skills learned in my classes can be used in other classes and in life later as well. My specific teaching style is a ‘guide on the side’ or coaching technique where I work with the students to engage them and help them learn.”

“I engage students in active learning by providing hands-on exercises,” says Shih. “I also teach in the hopes that the skills such as math and reasoning are transferrable to other aspects of life.”

Their goals are ambitious, admirable and certainly worthy of our support.

“I’d like to bring more classes online; work with colleagues to get a water quality lab running on campus; bring a larger emphasis to sustainability, including indigenous knowledge; add a concentration to the ASNS (associate in science in natural science) degree in environmental science; build a network of high school educators so that we can collaborate on student success in STEM; collaborate with the entire UH system to keep UH-MC up to date with STEM offerings; and continue to be an LGBQT+ safe-zone advocate,” says Ferguson.

Shih wants “to establish/develop an astronomy research course where students can get research and publication experience, and in the longer term I’d like to obtain grants or other external funds to expand the course offerings and capabilities of the astronomy program here at UH-MC.”

To learn more about our STEM courses and all our programs, please visit maui.hawaii.edu/.

* Lui K. Hokoana, Ph.D., is chancellor of the University of Hawaii Maui College. “Ka’ana Mana’o,” which means “Sharing Thoughts,” appears on the fourth Sunday of each month. It is prepared with assistance from UH-Maui College staff and is intended to provide the community of Maui County information about opportunities available through the college at its Kahului campus and its education centers.

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