School students tour lava flow, have hands-on science lesson from Civil Defense, UH Hilo geologists and others

The students viewed seven different learning stations hosted by scientists and experts from Civil Defense, UH Hilo’s Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes, UH Hilo Department of Geology, and Hawai‘i Electric Light Company.

Ken Hon points to photo of lava flow while children gather to listen.
Ken Hon, UH Hilo professor of geology, explains the lava flow to a group of school children. Click to enlarge. Photo by Darcy Bevens, CSAV

Yesterday more than 300 Pāhoa Elementary students became the first of more than 1,000 students this week who will get a close-up view of a lava flow that forced them to change schools. The field trip turned into a hands-on science lesson as students met with geologists, touched hardened lava, and shared their feelings of relocating to a new school.

Students were invited by Hawai‘i County Civil Defense and other county officials and geologists to view parts of Apa‘a Street and the Pāhoa Transfer Station, closed due to lava from the June 27 lava flow.

Children gather to watch slideshow about lava flow.
During the tour, students viewed an informational video by Drs. Cheryl Gansecki and Ken Hon, UH Hilo geologists and experts in pahoehoe lava. Click to enlarge. Photo: DOE

“Today’s tour gave students the opportunity to visibly see the magnitude of this episode and why they were forced to move,” says Keone Farias, incoming complex area superintendent for Ka‘u-Kea‘au-Pāhoa. “Today’s event helps tie in what they’re learning in the classroom with what’s happening in nature. It also helps them build their academic vocabulary and give context to their writing.”

The students viewed seven different learning stations hosted by scientists and experts from Civil Defense, the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo’s Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes (CSAV), UH Hilo Department of Geology, and Hawai‘i Electric Light Company.

Ken Hon
Ken Hon

Each station featured hands-on activities to engage students, including an informational video by UH Hilo geologists Cheryl Gansecki and Ken Hon, demonstrations of the speed of the lava, and interactive games.

“This week both the UH Hilo geology department and CSAV have been helping Hawai‘i County Civil Defense teach elementary school children from Pāhoa about what happened during the recent lava flows, how lava works, and what measures were during the passed flow,” says Hon. “Civil Defense set up stations and UH Hilo ran two of these. About 300 elementary school kids are visiting each day this week and so far it has been a great success.”

Ten UH Hilo geology majors are helping with interpretation during the tours.

The most poignant moment came when students offered a makana (gift) to Pele at the edge of the now-stalled lava flow and talked about their feelings about being at a new school. After offering their gift, students were able to touch the fresh lava and see that although it has since cooled on the surface, it is still sharp and continues to cool underneath.

To demonstrate the speed of the lava flow (averaging about 60 feet per hour), volunteers asked students to shuffle their feet a minute over the length of a few inches. “You don’t have to outrun the lava, you can outwalk it,” says Don Thomas, director for UH Hilo’s Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes.

“I found it interesting because we got to meet the Civil Defense people and see what they did for us when it came to access roads in case the lava came,” says one student.

Another says: “We got to see Pele today, and take pictures of Pele, and see how the lava affected Apa‘a Street.”

DOE photos of student tour can be viewed here.

-Adapted from DOE press release.


This post was updated on Dec. 10 with information from Ken Hon about UH Hilo contribution to the tours and the addition of photos below.

Photos by Darcy Bevins from UH Hilo Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes:

Outside near a recent lava flow, children gather around instructor who is showing them photos of the flow when it was active.
Children are shown “before” and “after” contrast of lava flow.


A group of school children  gather while one aims a thermal gun at the lava flow.
Hands-on learning of a thermal gun.


An instructor holds a chunk of lava on a table while schoolchildren reach out to touch it.
Learning about the texture of pahoehoe lava.


A dozen schoolchildren gather around a table where a male instructor is demonstrating flowing lava by pouring a gooey liquid into a mold.
Students learn how lava flows by watching UH Hilo geology student Roger Medina use molasses to demonstrate on a topography mold.


A close up of the mold where five children watch the thick substance flow down the mold. The instructor is at right holding the mold.
UH Hilo geology student Roger Medina shows school children how lava flows with a demo of molasses on a topography mold.