John Carlo Tulinao, a University of Miami graduate student, recently garnered a National Science Teachers Association award for his success of connecting with his students in the classroom through exemplary teaching.
For doctoral student John Carlo Tulinao, music is his lifeblood. It’s a passion he discovered growing up in the Philippines, but today it offers him a way to connect with his young students.
“To me, music is a need, not a want,” said Tulinao, who can play all of the main string instruments, as well as piano and marimba. “I grew up in a musical family, so there weren’t a lot of toys in our house, but there were a lot of instruments.”
The musician and first grade teacher is currently studying for a doctorate in applied learning sciences online at the University of Miami, while teaching in Arizona. And his ability to use music as a springboard for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) lessons recently earned Tulinao recognition from the National Science Teachers Association. On Monday, Tulinao was named a Shell Urban Science Educator Development Award recipient, given to just a handful of teachers nationwide who demonstrate excellence in implementing a STEM curriculum, while fostering an appreciation for other cultures.
Before coming to the United States, Tulinao worked as a music educator for seven years in the Philippines. He’d always wanted to teach younger children, but there were never openings. So, when he was offered a job teaching first grade in Phoenix, he decided to take it and moved halfway across the world.
In Arizona, Tulinao has broadened his teaching abilities, but he still relies on music—as well as his energetic personality—to capture the attention of his active six- and seven-year-old students. Often Tulinao uses a keyboard in the classroom to play tunes for different routines, like to signal an activity is ending, or that students should submit their papers. If he needs the students to stop talking, Tulinao will ring a bell. In addition, the members of his class use songs to greet each other every morning (in four languages) and to remember their sight words, which help them to read. “This kind of musical cuing is perfect for younger grades,” he said.
Tulinao started working at Amberlea Elementary in 2017 in the West Valley of Phoenix. It’s a school with a student population that is primarily Hispanic and Black and where many come from low-income households. Soon after, he volunteered to run an after-school music program. At the end of that year, the superintendent came to hear the performance and was floored. The students strummed their instruments to songs from the movie “The Greatest Showman,” as well as popular hits from the movie “Trolls” and others.
“At the time, many people thought the performance was recorded, but it was live music. And they couldn’t believe the kids were capable of doing it,” exclaimed Tulinao, who also led a community children’s orchestra in the Philippines.
But as a teacher, he often challenges his students. And his strong conviction in their abilities, coupled with his support, often lead to incredible results.
“If you give them a chance to really explore a concept and to do something far from your expectations, these kids can deliver,” he said.
After seeing his music program thrive, the superintendent asked him to create a music-centered STEM Academy at the school. Tulinao spent the summer researching and brainstorming how he could connect music to science, math, and engineering concepts.
That fall, he launched the academy in his first-grade class. For the first quarter, his students explored the science behind music and covered topics like vibration, pitch, and the importance of measurement in crafting an instrument. Tulinao tries to make most lessons hands-on, so that his students can investigate each instrument, while also mastering the state’s science standards.
“We talk about how the size of an instrument can tell you a lot about the sound it will make,” he said. “I expose them to different instruments. And they devise their own conclusions, such as the bigger the instrument, the lower the sound.”
The next semester, Tulinao focused on parts of the instrument and tasked students with putting violins back together. This helped integrate engineering concepts. And the third quarter, they learned to play the instruments during class.
“If they are able to put the instrument back together, then they are allowed to play it,” he said. “So, they are instantly motivated.”
Tulinao also incorporates tolerance into his lessons. In one unit, he taught his students about the history of a Filipino bamboo instrument called the Tongatong (inspired by Southeast Asia’s rice-pounding culture), which was used by the people of Kalinga, Philippines. Then, he requested that students work in groups to create a new prototype of the Tongatong using items found in Arizona.
“Once they learned the cultural background of the artifact, they saw it in a different way,” he said. “Bringing that culture into what you’re teaching fascinates kids and makes them see other cultures as an important aspect of life. So yes, these people look different, and they dress different, but they have something unique and special to respect.”
That experience drove Tulinao to create lessons based on his students’ backgrounds. Since many of them come from a Hispanic heritage, Tulinao crafted a STEM lesson about the piñata. The students learned about the history of the party fixture and then about physics concepts like force and gravity that are involved when children hit the piñata. Since Tulinao had to deliver the lesson online this past fall, he noticed that for the first time, some of the parents were listening. So, when he asked the students to create their own piñata using recycled materials, their parents joined in too.
“The parents and students were so engaged,” he said, grinning at the memory. “They didn’t even want to use recycled materials for the project because they were so excited that their culture was highlighted and appreciated.”
Despite his acumen in the classroom, Tulinao wants to keep improving his instruction. Therefore, he is working his way through a doctorate in applied learning sciences at the University. His adviser, Nam Ju Kim, assistant professor of teaching and learning, is a co-director of the program, which helps students adapt advanced learning theory into actual lessons that often integrate technology, too. Kim said that Tulinao is one of the most promising learning scientists he has taught; so, he is not surprised that the NSTA chose Tulinao for the award.
“John is always throwing himself into the assignment’s goals and has real talent,” said Kim. “He is exceptionally nice, good-humored, and friendly, as well as good at measuring his colleagues’ level of knowledge.”
But overall, Tulinao admitted, he just wants to make learning meaningful and entertaining for his young pupils. He even added that ever since he started his teaching career, he always tries to think of “out of the box” teaching ideas. Tulinao believes that the applied learning sciences program will further enhance his unique teaching ideas, and enable him to design the most functional and appropriate learning environment for each of his students.
“My goal is to make the learning experience like going to a theme park. It’s enjoyable and exciting but then—they learn,” said Tulinao, who regularly dons different costumes so that online lessons will hold his students’ attention. “They are learning critical concepts but doing it in a fun way.”