Science and culture lessons burn as bright as the stars

  • Waimea Country School 4th and 5th grade students visit the historic Naha Stone.

  • Waimea Country School 4th and 5th grade students visit the W. M. Keck Observatory headquarters in Waimea, getting a lesson from Science Operations Lead Randy Campbell about the relative sizes of the planets in our solar system. (Courtesy photos)

WAIMEA — What is science? What is culture? These are just a few of the questions Waimea Country School’s fourth- and fifth-grade students were asked to think about before their recent learning trip to Hilo.

After learning about the Hawaiian monarchy period and completing a science unit on astronomy, students visited the Naha Stone and King Kamehameha’s statue; were given tours of the Lyman Mission House as well as the Lyman Museum; and capped their trip with discussion time spent on Mokuola (aka Coconut Island) with Kumu Leileihua Yuen.


“Learning is most relevant when students are able to make meaningful and personal connections to what they study in class,” teacher Laurel Matsuda said of the trip’s goals. “One of my students is related to the Lyman family and another has a parent who works at Keck. The old Hawaiians were adventurers, explorers, and scientists whose cultural stories helped to explain and make sense of their world. Much of the knowledge passed down in chants and stories has in fact been corroborated by modern science. I want students to see and value these connections.”

The students had recently visited the W.M. Keck Observatory where they modeled the relative sizes of the planets in our solar system with clay. They also had a classroom visit from navigator Kalepa Baybayan to learn some basics of ocean wayfinding using the Hawaiian star compass.

Kumu Leilehua added to their understanding by comparing science and culture to a throw net. She asked the students which rope in the net was the most important. The answer: all of them. And which hole is most important? All of them. Without all its parts, the net would be useless; without both science and culture, our understanding of the world cannot be complete.

Students learned many new facts on this trip: There once was a flightless goose in Hawaii. Adaptive radiation, the process through which many different organisms evolve from a single ancestral species, is responsible for Hawaii’s amazing biodiversity. A rare mineral was named after Orlando Lyman. Minerals can form perfect geometric shapes.

Students also learned about how and why chamber pots were used before the advent of indoor plumbing. They heard that although the summit of Maunakea is possibly the best place on earth for telescopic astronomy, it is not necessarily the best place for humans to observe the stars because the lack of oxygen and high altitude negatively affect human vision, making a lower altitude preferable for humans to observe the heavens.

But above all else, the students loved hearing the stories Hawaiians saw in the stars behind the Hawaiian constellations from Kumu Leilehua and how these cultural creations informed important aspects of daily life such as planting, harvesting, and fishing.

“I was surprised how differently the Hawaiians interpreted constellations compared to the Greeks,” student Will Spendolini said.

This excursion left the students left eager to learn more.


“That’s the best outcome a teacher could hope for from a learning trip,” said Matsuda.

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