UH faculty and EPSCoR Researcher John HR Burns receives Undergrad Teaching Award

By Kayla Bisquera

University of Hawai‘i at Hilo Assistant Professor and Hawai‘i EPSCoR ‘Ike Wai project researcher John H. R. Burns is a recipient of the prestigious 2020 Frances Davis Annual Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. His goal is to involve students in his research and provide them training with cutting-edge technology and data science tools.

“I put a lot into my teaching strategies by trying new tools that don’t always work, or by taking risks connecting with my students,” Burns said. Working with ‘Ike Wai has given his students new opportunities that foster real science experience. “‘Ike Wai gives us a substantial data science foundation for education and research. I’ve always integrated data science tools into my work, it keeps things progressing.” 

Burns, who teaches marine science, is a researcher who studies and models coral health and disease. His work has investigated the physiological impacts of disease on affected corals and how coral mortality affects the ecology and biology of coral reef ecosystems.

John H.R. Burns

John owes much of his success in communication to his former mentor, Ruth Gates, director and researcher at the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology. “She knew how to push the best out of people. On both ends, she made me appreciate my commitment to science and she recognized my passion for communication,” he said. John’s teaching style takes inspiration from Ruth by using simple strategies to break down classroom barriers. He engages students into conversation, asks questions, remembers names and creates an environment where students always feel comfortable. “I’m just keeping the fire burning that she did so well,” Burns said.

With COVID-19 restrictions still in place, John is planning a virtual summer research project with 10 undergraduate students, again using data science tools to see how coral communities are changing over time. Last summer’s ‘Ike Wai Scholars published a research paper and presented their findings at the 2020 Hawai‘i Data Science Institute Virtual Poster Session. This summer, the research will continue as planned and the scholars look forward to new discoveries. “We have to get creative,” Burns said. “This is a new capacity for community and collaboration.”