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KS Hawaiʻi chemistry teacher Joel Truesdell accepts the 2017 National Science Teachers Association's Shell Science Teaching Award on March 31, 2017.Truesdell was recognized for his efforts in infusing Hawaiian culture-based education as the hook for teaching his chemistry culture, bringing relevance and connection to his students before the science itself.

Truesdell earns national award for Hawaiian culture-based approach

April 6, 2017

Contributed by Shaundor Chillingworth

National honors like the Shell Science Teaching Award further validate and recognize the commitment Kamehameha Schools educators make to creating and adopting world-class teaching practices. By recognizing Joel Truesdell and his culture-first approach to teaching chemistry, the NSTA acknowledges the value and importance of Hawaiian culture-based education and its application in building relevance for students. 

Kamehameha Schools Hawaiʻi campus chemistry teacher Joel Truesdell was awarded the 2017 National Science Teachers Association(NSTA) Shell Science Teaching Award at the NSTA’s Teacher Awards Gala on Mar. 31 at the JW Marriott LA Live in Los Angeles.

The Shell Science Teaching Award recognizes one outstanding classroom science teacher (K-12) who has had a positive impact on his or her students, school and community through exemplary classroom science teaching.

The Arlington, VA-based National Science Teachers Association is the largest professional organization in the world promoting excellence in science teaching and learning, preschool through college. NSTA’s membership includes approximately 55,000 science teachers, science supervisors, administrators, scientists, business representatives, and others involved in science education.

During 30 years of classroom teaching, Truesdell evolved from a traditional lecturer to a culture-based teacher, including aspects of Hawaiian culture in lessons and labs. Five years ago, he converted his chemistry curriculum so students learn science through the lens of Hawaiian culture.

“If students are excited about the topic and recognize its relevance to them, they will take the topic to a greater depth,” says Truesdell. “The real secret is to build on students’ prior knowledge and to weave each topic into more complex activities.”

Kanoe Wilson, a Kamehameha Schools Kealapono education officer recognizes the direct impacts Truesdell’s curriculum has had on his students.

“Our action research project data findings demonstrate that his teaching practices have shown increase in student engagement, environmental and community advocacy, and in particular, the American Chemical Society Final Exam where we saw students increase in their test scores from 70% to 83% due to his innovative practices,” shares Wilson.

Truesdell has learned that the best way to teach science is the way it has been taught for thousands of years: with culture and relevance first and being project-based, inquiry-based and student-driven.

“My first experience with this was with my 1st and 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Dorothy Crouse who was Native American and put the culture first,” shared Truesdell.

“Recognizing my learning style has helped to shape my teaching method, which has been based on relevance, multistep logic, rigor, passion and fun.”

Truesdell grew up just outside of Niagara Falls in Sanborn, NY, where he graduated from Niagrara Wheatfield High School in 1973. He holds a B.S. in chemistry and an M.S. in organic chemistry from the University of Miami and an A.B.D. in synthetic organic chemistry from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Truesdell has taught at Kamehameha Schools since 1988, first at the Kapālama campus before moving to KS Hawaiʻi in 2004 where he serves as lead teacher in chemistry, Honors Chemistry and Advanced Placement Chemistry.

Along with wife Elizabeth Truesdell, who is an English teacher at KS Hawaiʻi, he also coaches the girls cross country team. On multiple occasions, he's been able to combine both pursuits adding a cultural learning experience to the team's training by taking the team to Tuba City in Arizona where they participate in a cultural exchange with the predominantly Native American high school in the area, bringing his culture-based teaching techniques to the local high school.

In accepting the award, he recognized his science teaching team (who were also there to support him), curriculum coordinator Dory Shigematsu and the leadership of principal Dr. Lehua Vencient. While he was being recognized, he viewed the award as part of the legacy of indigenous educators and students who validate this approach and the support needed to get to this point.

"Mr. Truesdell is recognized for his excellence in teaching in science and building the science academia upon the cultural foundation of our students and the ‘āina," shares Veincent.

When then po‘o kula Dr. Holoua Stender and po‘o kumu Veincent arrived to KS Hawaiʻi in 2012, Truesdell knew he had two advocates who would support his vision for what could be. Through his chemistry courses, he founded the Koa Reforestation Chemistry Project, an ambitious desire to create a native forest on campus within a short walk of the high school classrooms. Five years later, established koa trees growing alongside other native plants can be seen walking around in the forest space, beginning to evolve into the vision he had for a one-of-a-kind classroom without walls that is easily accessible, unlike most native forests. Giving students the opportunity to drive this work gave him the hook he needed to get them interested in learning more about the chemistry of soil preparation and maintenance that would provide the conditions for these trees and other plants to thrive.

"Kumu Joel Truesdell's years of producing world-class HCBE science education is admired here at Kamehameha and throughout Hawai'i, and is now recognized nationally," writes Stender. "Congratulations to him, his colleagues and his students for this prestigious award."

Truesdell also credits the work of Dr. Walter Kahumoku, and how teaching in Kahumoku’s program helped him accelerate his growth as a Hawaiian culture-based teacher.

“Anyone who participates in Dr. Kahumoku's workshop will be far more prepared to help educate our youth. It will be life changing for both the educator and also for his or her students,” says Truesdell.

“Anyone can teach through the culture if given guidance. It just requires a shift in perspective and a little practice making lesson plans.”

Kahumoku is currently planning on offering a four-day workshop this summer to give educators some of that guidance. More details will be shared in the next month.

Ultimately, Truesdell notes how that shift in perspective takes learning into the world of a student and helps create an enjoyable classroom.

This summer, this Hawaiian-culture and Next Generation Science Standards-based curriculum that is centered on the world of students will be presented at the World Indigenous People’s Conference on Education held July 24-27 in Toronto. Truesdell and Wilson also presented at the 2014 WiPCE conference in Honolulu.

The Science Teaching Award is sponsored by Shell. Three finalists receive a citation and travel expenses to attend the NSTA National Conference. In addition, the awardee receives a check for $10,000, formal citation and commemorative clock.  John Gensic a science teacher at Penn High School in Mishawaka, Indiana and Ryan Monger a biology and sustainable design teacher at Sultan High School in Sultan, Washington were the two finalists for the award.

Truesdell was the only Hawaiʻi teacher honored this year. He was a finalist for this award in 2013 and 2016 and a semifinalist in 2014 and 2015. See the full list of NSTA 2017 Teacher Awards Program recipients.

In addition to the Shell Science Teaching Award, Truesdell is a 2002 Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching (PAEMST) State of Hawaiʻi winner and a 2013 finalist for the SeaWorld/Busch Gardens Environmental Teacher of the Year.

SP2020 is a five-year strategic plan that will guide Kamehameha Schools from 2015 to 2020. The plan marks a starting point toward KS’ Vision 2040, which envisions success for all Native Hawaiian learners.

Recognitions like this support Goal 1 and Goal 3 of SP2020 which call for KS to deliver world-class, culture-based education and to cultivate Native Hawaiian identity within its learners. It also supports Action 1 of Kamehameha’s Ten Actions for fiscal year 2016-17, advancing as a world-class KS school system.

See Truesdell's acceptance speech and awards presentation from the 2017 NSTA Teacher Awards Gala below.

Joel Truesdell Shell Science Teaching Award Finalist Video

As part of the award nomination process, KS Hawaiʻi teacher Joel Truesdell submits a video showcasing instruction in Hawaiian culture-based chemistry. Truesdell is the 2017 National Science Teachers Association Shell Science Teaching Award winner. Learn more at

‘Ōiwi TV: Teaching Chemistry Through Culture

An ʻŌiwi TV story about KS Hawaiʻi chemistry teacher Joel Truesdell and a koa reforestation project on the Kamehameha Schools Hawai'i campus. Through the project, Truesdell highlights the importance of culture and 'āina based approaches to making a connection for our haumāna. Read the story here:

Karen Labat (Social Investment Manager at Shell Oil Company) and Mary Gronko (NSTA President) present Joel Truesdell with the 2017 Shell Science Teaching Award at the NSTA Teacher Awards Gala on Mar. 31.

Kamehameha Schools Hawaiʻi at the NSTA Teaching Awards Gala, celebrating Joel Truesdell and the Shell Science Teaching Award.

Joel and Elizabeth Truesdell at the Shell Awards presentation.

Mr. Truesdell's chemistry class at the start of the Koa Reforestation Chemistry Project. Learn more about this endeavor in the ʻŌiwi TV: Teaching Chemistry Through Culture video below.

Truesdell was also a finalist for the Shell Science Teaching award in 2013 and 2016 and was a semifinalist in 2014 and 2015.

The KS Hawaiʻi Girls Cross Country team visits Grand Canyon national park with new friends from Tuba City High School. At the park, they are given were given a native perspective by the Tuba City Cross Country Coach and Hopi Language Teacher, Arvis Myron. As Cross Country coach, Truesdell saw an opportunity to turn a team training activity into more, exchanging cultural traditions and practices with the Hopi community in Arizona.

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