Japanese teacher

Takahiro Kayano (at the white board, left), his translator, Saori Brown (at the white board with Kayano), Tom Meagher (walking among the students, right), and Don Hettinga help Owatonna Middle School students learn about nuclear waste during a project Tuesday morning. (Ryan Anderson/People’s Press)

OWATONNA — As part of the burgeoning partnership between Japanese educators and the Owatonna school district, Takahiro Kayano, a member of the education faculty at Shizuoka University, was a guest instructor in Don Hettinga’s classes Tuesday morning, and he then discussed Owatonna Middle School’s outdoor classroom and E-STEM model with the likes of Tom Meagher — STEM coordinator for Owatonna Public Schools — Thursday.

Kayano was part of the first Japanese contingent to visit Owatonna schools in September 2016, and he and Meagher reconnected when the latter traveled to Japan for more STEM discussion since that initial voyage, Meagher said. Kayano’s interested in students utilizing evidence to debate critical issues, so he created an iPad lesson where learners analyze geography, cost, environmental impact, and cultural conventions to decide how to dispose of nuclear waste.

Hettinga’s middle school students weighed those factors Tuesday, and they were taught about Finland, which is tunneling deep into the earth for the Onkalo spent nuclear fuel repository. The repository, currently under construction, would be the first of its type in the world for high-level waste.

“We’re looking to be more carbon-friendly in the future,” and nuclear power is one possibility, but there’s the concern of nuclear waste, said Hettinga, who teaches social studies at the middle school. Kayano’s lesson “blends science with social issues.”

Naturally, nuclear power is a provocative topic in Japan following that country’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, and Tuesday’s lesson is the start of Japanese students and American students communicating with one another, Meagher said. “This is the first step, but it’s a big first step.”

Kayano will take the work completed by Hettinga’s students to his country to share, and, ideally, those Japanese students will write back, Meagher said.

“Getting our students talking to each other would be wonderful,” he said.

Indeed, while the topic of nuclear power and waste is paramount, even more pivotal is the lesson of utilizing data to formulate arguments, Kayano said through his interpreter, Saori Brown, a native of Japan whose husband is from Owatonna. Japanese students tend to be substandard in that arena, so part of Kayano’s task in his country is inspiring students to make those very arguments.

Students in the U.S. are often unabashed in fighting for their positions, and that’s partially due to the alacrity of American teachers in “facilitating” classroom discussion, Kayano said. Japanese teachers and students, conversely, are adept at “preparation” and studying materials.

“The Japanese school system is way more structured than ours, and they want to learn from us,” Hettinga said. However, Japanese schools “are also dealing with some things we haven’t had to yet” in America, so “we want to use that as a model,” too.

Reach Reporter Ryan Anderson at 507-444-2376 or follow him on Twitter @randerson_ryan.

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