STEM Education Bridges OIST and Okinawan Community

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September 2020

In 2018, when Robert “Bob” Nakasone was appointed to OIST’s Board of Councilors, he asked OIST leaders a very specific question:

“What has OIST been doing to promote STEM education in the community?”

Bob is a second-generation Okinawan from Hawaii who studied physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and led Duracell’s Japan business based in Tokyo. He believes that STEM education is a means for Okinawans to explore new economic frontiers, propel innovation and growth, and live into a sustainable future for generations. He wanted to align that belief with his philanthropy to OIST by supporting programs that encourage more Okinawan young people to study sciences and engineering.

Bob splits his time between his two home islands, Hawaii and Okinawa, and helps to build intergovernmental and business networks between the two. He has a deep, personal understanding of the benefits, and the challenges, of island life.

According to data from the Okinawa Prefectural Government and other sources, Okinawa has a poorer record on the National Achievement Test and a lower proportion of young people pursuing higher education (36%) than the rest of Japan. And, of those who do continue their educations, fewer focus on science subjects at university.

These challenges won’t be overcome by OIST’s efforts alone, but — to answer Bob’s question — OIST has been working toward addressing the challenges by promoting STEM in the community. For example, the annual OIST Science Festival, open to the public since 2010, is one of the largest science events in Okinawa, attracting thousands of visitors every year. The Children’s School of Science, a week-long program for elementary and junior high school students in Onna School District, brings excitement and hands-on science that many local families look forward to every summer. And, several times a year, OIST staff and volunteers travel to the remote islands such as Ishigaki and Miyako to give lectures and interactive demonstrations at local schools, bringing science to the students.

Ever the trailblazer and go-getter, Bob applauded these efforts but said, “I think we can do more.”

And then he did.

Bob organized a fundraising event for OIST and invited members of the Worldwide Uchinanchu Business Association in Hawaii, a nonprofit organization he co-founded. Honoring the name that Okinawan people call themselves, Uchinanchu, the association’s mission is to support Okinawan business, culture, and education.

Together, Bob and others made a gift of $25,000 (more than 2.6 million yen) to encourage, prepare, enable young Uchinanchu in Okinawa and worldwide to attend OIST.

This generous gift will supplement the support from the Okinawan People’s Council for the Promotion of OIST, which allocates about 1.8 million yen annually to OIST’s community relations programs.

OIST founders and leadership have long been aware of the need to bridge the world of science and Okinawan communities through educational outreach. When OIST was established, the young university was tasked with bringing the benefits of cross-disciplinary research to the sustainable development of Okinawa.

Now, that aim has been etched into OIST’s new strategic plan. OIST will develop a range of high-quality educational programs to accomplish several goals:

Inspire Okinawan students to study science and technology and to become future OIST graduate students.
Assist local educators in meeting the 2020 MEXT educational guidelines that emphasize active learning for future society including through STEM.
Increase the options for English-language education in Okinawa, encouraging more students to pursue a college education.

Philanthropy will play a key role in achieving these goals. In addition to the gift from Bob and his friends, OIST has received a grant from the Orchid Bounty*, which supports organizations and individuals working to promote arts, culture, sports, and education in Okinawa. The grant supported OIST’s outreach programs that foster citizen science (OKEON Project), empower high school girls to pursue studies and careers in science (Science Project for Ryuku Girls), and promote marine science (University Marine Initiative) in the Okinawan community.

[*Note: The Orchid Bounty is a fund made up of donations from participants in the Daikin Orchid Ladies Tournaments, Pro-Am golf tournaments, sponsored by Daikin Industries, Ltd. and Ryukyu Broadcasting Corporation, as well as donations from the organizers.]

“OIST brings together top-notch researchers from around the world to conduct cutting-edge research. Its contribution to the Okinawan community is extremely valuable and meaningful. OIST's activities to conserve the natural environment of Okinawa and to support career development for future female scientists are particularly remarkable, and we are pleased to make contributions to them. We will continue to keep an ongoing interest in OIST's community outreach activities,” said the Orchid Bounty secretariat staff.

Donors in the United States are also supporting STEM outreach efforts through the OIST Foundation, an independent nonprofit organization based in New York. Shoko Farmer, an Okinawan residing in Seattle, who also serves on the Board of the Japan-America Society of the State of Washington, made a personal donation to support the Ryukyu Girls program. Her company, Russell Investments, matched her gift, doubling her impact.

The Tanaka Memorial Foundation pledged two grants to support the Ryukyu Girls and the science trips to schools on the remote islands. “I am pleased to connect OIST with these philanthropic investments as they make it possible for OIST to engage more Okinawan students in STEM programs,” said Takeshi Ueshima, who holds leadership positions on the boards of both the Tanaka Memorial Foundation and the OIST Foundation.

Indeed, while OIST receives generous subsidies from the Japanese government for its own research and graduate education operations, community outreach activities are often not covered by those funds. OIST relies on external funding to run these vital programs that help local students who are not officially affiliated with OIST.

“We are truly appreciative of everyone’s support,” said Dr. Misaki Takabayashi, Vice Dean of the Graduate School at OIST, where a new Science Education Outreach team was recently formed. The team, which is an example of the university’s renewed and augmented efforts in STEM education for local communities, will work on continued and new programs.

Two years after posing his question to OIST, Bob has proven that with additional support from the worldwide OIST community, there is always more that can be done to bring hands-on, interactive, and multidisciplinary STEM education experiences to local students and families. Bob has since made two more personal donations to OIST’s STEM outreach projects.

To all the donors who care so deeply about the education and the future of Okinawan youth, we extend our sincere gratitude for your trust in us for achieving more. Nifee Deebiiru.

By Emily Weisgrau, Jie Pan