Lee Cain, the fisheries biology teacher at Astoria High School, will soon be honored as one of the top five K-12 science teachers in Oregon.
Cain, who teaches integrated science, fisheries and marine biology, was nominated and recently named one of 10 state-level finalists in science and math for the 2015 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.
The award is the highest bestowed by the U.S. government on a K-12 teacher. Cain was nominated by Jeremy Hirsch, a middle school social studies teacher in Seaside whose son Elijah attends Astoria High School and has taken several classes from Cain.
“His love of science and field studies and the creation of the fisheries program is such a blessing for Astoria to have at the high school,” Hirsch said. “He had unending passion for working with students to grow into young scientists.”
Cain will be honored by the Oregon Science Teachers Association next week in Bend.
“I’ve always felt that the No. 1 thing is to get them doing the science, rather than telling them about it,” Cain said of his teaching style.
Eldon Korpela started Astoria’s aquatic biology program in 1972. Following him was instructor Gus Fennerty.
Before coming to Astoria in 1997, Cain taught for three years in Wenatchee, Washington, after five years of fieldwork with wildlife agencies from Alaska to Florida.
Over his 19 years at Astoria, Cain has helped build up the Eldon Korpela Applied Science Center, which was built in 2003 as part of a district bond measure. The hatchery there receives between 20,000 and 30,000 Chinook salmon eggs and about 5,000 coho eggs, flushing the grown fish down a small creek into Youngs Bay each year.
Cain has partnered his classes with various agencies throughout the years to monitor wetland conditions near the Astoria Regional Airport, survey for aquatic life, study the effect of fire retardants on invasive mussels and countless other projects in the field.
Cain assigns his fisheries students a fish tank on campus, filled with tropical African cichlids. He takes students to his alma mater, Oregon State University, each year, to compete in the National Ocean Sciences Bowl.
“I put nature in front of them and have them look at it,” Cain said, noting biologist Edward O. Wilson’s “Biophilia,” which contends people have an inherent love of nature. “I don’t have to do much when they do that.”
Cain said he got the connection with nature from his parents, both artists, and has wanted to be a marine biologist since he was 7 years old.
“I grew up on 30 acres in southwestern Oregon,” he said. “I’ve been splashing in creeks, catching fish and climbing over mountains since I was tiny.”
And Cain hopes to at least pass that connection on to his students.
As one of five state-level finalists in science, his application is in the running for Oregon’s national Presidential Award, which is announced in July. A committee reporting to the National Science Foundation selects one science teacher from each state, along with Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Education Activity schools and U.S. territories as a single group. One math teacher is also selected from each area.
Each national awardee receives a signed certificate from the U.S. president, a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation, a trip for two to Washington, D.C., to be honored and a chance to speak with policymakers about how to improve science or math education.
Cain said he has been nominated for the Presidential Award before but turned the honor down because of the work it takes videotaping his classes and analyzing his teaching style for the application.
“There are a lot of fantastic teachers out there,” Cain said, calling himself a long shot to win the national honor. “Most of us are way too busy to self-promote.”