Leslie “Ka‘iu” Kimura is director of ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, a public education center at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. Her scholarly activity focuses mainly on community outreach involving the development and implementation of public programs and activities that advance the integration of science and indigenous culture. She also facilitates collaborative efforts between the local and scientific communities to develop cultural, scientific, educational, and environmental resources to promote scientific advancement and innovation.
“Our work (at ‘Imiloa) helps us to put, at the forefront, the wisdom of our (Hawaiian) ancestors, together with the wisdom of modern science, in ways that allow for the exploration of new knowledge and new contributions to our understanding of our world and of our universe,” Kimura says.
‘Imiloa, which means “exploring new knowledge,” houses an exhibition and planetarium complex. The center is nationally recognized as a model for collaborations between scientific and local communities resulting in educational activities in the STEM fields (STEM is shorthand for science, technology, engineering and math).
Kimura says there also has been “a surprising global reaction to ‘Imiloa’s mission of bridging the scientific world and the world of cultural communities in ways that lead to the advancement of the local community.”
At the forefront of Kimura’s community outreach is the engagement of keiki (children).
“We have taken on a special mission to engage Hawaiʻi’s youth, our next generation of explorers and innovators, through hands-on programming,” she says. “‘Imiloa fosters their interest in science and engineering while integrating their local heritage with the demands of a 21st century economy driven by technology and innovation.”
The engagement of youth also includes the young adults who serve as interns and hires at the center, over 70 students since the opening in 2006.
“Student projects and involvement range from exhibit research and development, to planetarium operations and production,” she says. “Students have also assisted with education and community event planning, marketing surveys, as well as public speaking and presentations to a diverse audience of ‘Imiloa visitors.”
Kimura originally joined ‘Imiloa as Hawaiian content research specialist at the center during its planning phase in 2001 and later served as experience coordinator. She says she wanted to work at ‘Imiloa because she knew the center would become a great community resource that brought together, in significant ways, the power of cultural and scientific exploration and advancement.
“When I began working for ‘Imiloa, called the Mauna Kea Astronomy Education Center back then, my job was to assist in the development of the exhibits,” she says. “That was an amazing experience. Under the leadership of my uncle, Larry Kimura, we got to work with so many people from our community and put together a storyline to share ‘Imiloa’s mission.” (Larry Kimura is an assistant professor of Hawaiian language and Hawaiian studies at UH Hilo.)
Following those early years at ‘Imiloa, Ka‘iu Kimura served as Hale Kipa ‘Ōiwi Indigenous Exchange Program coordinator at ‘Aha Pūnana Leo, an organization that spearheaded the resurgence of the Hawaiian language. The non-profit administers Hawaiian language preschool sites throughout the state, and creates other avenues for the continual survival and growth of the Hawaiian language.
Then she returned to ‘Imiloa, where she held the position of associate director with responsibility for all visitor experiences in addition to planetarium, educational, exhibit, and cultural programming.
She was named interim director of the center in 2009 and appointed director in 2010. Under her leadership, the center has helped facilitate the creation of a larger community vision for Maunakea mountain, home to several international observatories. Kimura and the center’s staff have developed and strengthened partnerships with local schools, businesses, and the Hawaiʻi-based observatories, developing ‘Imiloa as a place for meaningful dialogue to promote scientific advancement and innovation.
Kimura has been principal investigator for over $10 million in grants from NASA Ames; Education Match Funds; various sponsorship funds from county, corporate, and private sources; ECHO Grants from the U.S. Department of Education through the Bishop Museum; the Moore Foundation; Alexander and Baldwin; the Lannan Foundation; and the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority.
She has some exciting plans for the future of ‘Imiloa.
“Our first seven years have proved the relevance and staying power of ‘Imiloa’s unique mission to present modern science through the lens of indigenous culture,” she says. “The approach of our tenth anniversary in 2016 challenges us in a new way. We must now think beyond mere survival and begin to put in place critical components to strengthen our institutional leadership role for decades to come.”
She says the interpretive exhibit hall designed in the early 2000’s needs to keep pace with changes in the understanding of astronomy and with what she and the center’s staff have learned about the ways in which visitors interact with museum content.
“We have put together an ambitious plan to refresh the hall with more interactive and easily-updated exhibits and to include much more content for younger learners,” she says.
Kimura serves on the boards of ‘Aha Pūnana Leo, Big Island Visitors Bureau, Japanese Chamber of Hawai‘i, and the Hawai‘i Island Chamber of Commerce. She received her master of arts in Hawaiian language and literature, and is a candidate for a doctor of philosophy in indigenous language revitalization, from UH Hilo.