Mr. Joe Minato    

-- If I can inspire my students to notice, care about, 
and learn about the wonders of nature, 
then I consider myself a success.

Astronomy and IB Physics 1-2.

Mr. Minato just finished his first semester teaching 
at Lincoln High School. 

LHS Foundation:    When did you first start teaching?

Mr. Minato:     In fourth grade I became a tutor for first graders who were having difficulties.  I remember my first student, Valerie. In addition to being a typical first grader learning to read, she had a physical disability and had trouble holding the book and turning the pages. I was so nervous when I first saw her. The first grade teacher sensed this and said these words, I remember them so clearly, “Don’t be afraid Joey, just start by holding the book and turning the pages, the rest will come to you.” Every week I looked forward to my time with Valerie, and later other first graders. This was the highlight of my elementary school years.

In high school I started a Summer Camp/School in my parents’ basement. We had a big basement. I am the youngest of a flock of children who had all left home by that point, so I had some room. I took the ping pong table from the carport and set it up in the big room. We did science, math, and especially computer science. This was my ticket out of the berry fields of Gresham. My first paid teaching gig.

At MIT I was one of the few physics majors in my dorm. Electrical engineering and computer science were the rage in the early 1980s. I started helping a few freshman on my floor. Ultimately I had study sessions attended by 100+ students. This built my teaching skills and confidence. 

LHS Foundation:    Astronomy is close to your heart, as anyone who has attended one of your star parties can tell. How did you come to be a stargazer, and how do you hope learning about stars will affect your students?

Mr. Minato:    The truth is I am not much of an observational astronomer. I find stargazing relaxing, inspiring, and just plain fun. But I am not that good at it. As an undergraduate and graduate student I studied astrophysics, especially x-ray astrophysics. The telescope I used was an x-ray telescope on a satellite orbiting the Earth.

A major endeavor of physics, at least in my humble opinion, is to come up with a small number of elegant ideas that describe and perhaps even explain how the universe works from the smallest subatomic particle to the clusters of galaxies, from tiny fractions of a microsecond to billions of years. Astrophysics is a big part of that endeavor.

I love being outside and consider myself an old-school naturalist more than a scientist. I take any excuse at any time of the year and any time of the day to find inspiration, calmness, and meaning in wildlife, plants, the night sky, the landscape, or just an interesting weed that I have not noticed before growing out of a crack in the sidewalk.

If I can inspire my students to notice, care about, and learn about the wonders of nature, then I consider myself a success.

LHS Foundation:    Students now entering Lincoln are the first cohort of youngsters who have grown up since infancy within the internet/telecommunications distracto-sphere. Has teaching gotten tougher? 

Mr. Minato:    A number of years ago I was leading a group of eight or so fourth graders on a nature walk. We came upon a wetland where we spied an aquatic nymph crawling out of its home in the mud beneath the water on a long, round, green rush. The nymph got to a sunny spot on the plant, stopped, and slowly began to crawl out of its exoskeleton. Eventually, its huge, delicate wings unfolded and its hidden identity as a dragonfly was clear. After a few minutes of basking in the sun drying, it flew away. The students were motionless and silent as we were treated to this rarely seen wonder of nature. The silence was broken by a student saying dismissively, “Big deal, I saw this happen before on a nature video.”

To me there is a world of difference between seeing something on a video (or now the Internet) in your comfortable home and the authenticity of seeing it real and live with your feet wet and your ears cold.

We are drowning is a sea of audio and video and disconnected factoids. We are much like the person dying of thirst on a raft in the ocean, “water, water, everywhere and not a drop to drink.” In modern society and education we are surrounded by a sea of inauthenticity while we are dying of thirst for a drink of reality.

Rachel Carson spoke of nurturing the young person’s “sense of wonder.” Carl Sagan talked about the cultivating a “zest for experimentation.” I endeavor to inspire in my students the desire to seek out real experiences where we learn as directly as possible from nature, be it a metamorphosing dragonfly, a decaying atomic nucleus, or an exploding star. 

I don’t know if the information revolution has made teaching tougher. But it has made teaching different. I’ll take the advice of Bob Dylan, “get out of the new road if you can’t lend a hand, for the times they are a changin’.” Teaching has changed, but my fundamental role as a teacher has not really changed since 1972 and Valerie, I just start by opening the book and turning the pages, the rest just comes to me.

LHS Foundation:    How has being at Lincoln allowed you to grow professionally?

Mr. Minato:    Lincoln high school has the most impressive staff of educators that I have ever worked with. To be honest, it is simultaneously an honor and a bit humbling. “I am not worthy!” my inner critic screams at me. “Back to work, knave!”

LHS Foundation:    How do you organize your classes to best help the disorganized student succeed?

Mr. Minato:    I keep a very organized and detailed website for each of my classes. Check them out:

LHS Foundation:    Thank you.

Mr. Minato holds a Bachelors of Science degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with a major in physics, and a minor in mathematics. He did graduate work in astrophysics at the University of Washington and in geophysics at the University of Oregon. In addition to his responsibilities at Lincoln, Mr. Minato teaches a course on how to teach science at Lewis & Clark College. He also is founder and president of Coriolis, a small science and math tutoring and consulting business.

(Interview date: January, 2014)