STEM Exploration program inspires local youth to pursue scientific careers in Hawai‘i

Led by UH Hilo graduate student Lisa Mason, an innovative STEM program engages local high school students in scientific inquiry to light the first sparks toward careers in science here in Hawai‘i.

Group gathers at beach to listen to guide.
During a four-day series of STEM activities, local high students and their families took a field trip to survey coral at Laehala, Keaukaha, where the group learned about coral biology, diversity, and distribution on the Hilo coastline. March 19, 2022. (Courtesy photo)

By Susan Enright and Jordan Hemmerly.

A graduate student at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo organized and led a group of local high school students this spring semester for a series of activities in science, technology, engineering and math, commonly called the STEM fields. The purpose the STEM Exploration Series was to engage the students in scientific inquiry and perhaps light the first sparks toward careers in science here in Hawai‘i.

Lisa Mason pictured
Lisa Mason (Courtesy photo)

Lisa Mason, an educator with the local non-profit NexTech Hawai‘i who also is a graduate student and researcher with UH Hilo’s tropical conservation biology and environmental science program, planned and led the events. The mission of NexTech Hawai‘i is to inspire and build STEM career readiness in Hawai‘i youth.

Eighteen students from 12 different local high schools participated in the program alongside their parents and families. The group engaged in a series of virtual lessons and in-person field activities where they gained knowledge and inspiration from multiple graduate students and experts from UH Hilo research labs.

 “Our goal in offering these programs is to inspire youth towards STEM careers here in Hawai‘i, a place they belong and care about,” says Mason. “[They can] help make it a better and more sustainable place, not just for wildlife or the environment, but also for our families and communities.”

Mason is currently researching the palila, a critically endangered Hawaiian finch. She says she is passionate about protecting Hawaiian birds and creating opportunities for students to strengthen their personal relationships with nature and island communities.

“We want to show them that they do not need to leave Hawai‘i forever, if at all, to pursue higher education or a job in science and technology,” says Mason. “If we want our keiki to dream about a future in STEM careers, then we also have to show them that those opportunities are possible here and do exist.”

Through the series of workshops, the students learned about the power of best practices when working through scientific questions.

“We designed this program, from space to the forests to the sea, to demonstrate the endless possibilities that await them if they want it,” says Mason.

Endless possibilities

The series of activities during the program took place over four days in March.

On the first day, students were introduced to an ArcGIS Online course about mapmaking and how Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology is used as a tool in many different career fields. The students received a free one-year subscription to ArcGIS Online, were taught the basics of using the web-based platform, and received a course completion certificate.

An ArcGIS advance workshop will be held later this spring.

On the second day, the group met at the Kaulana Manu Nature Trail on the slopes of Maunakea for a biocultural hike to learn more about Hawai‘i native forests and birds.

“We practiced place-appropriate protocols, learned how to survey for birds, talked about key conservation issues including mosquito control and predator removal, and discussed how they can take steps to help protect our forest species,” says Mason.

Group of students gather for photo in the forest.
Above, students and guides gather for photo during field trip at the Kaulana Manu Nature Trail. March 16, 2022. (Courtesy photo)

Learn more about the Kaulana Manu Nature Trail (Hawai‘i Department of Natural Resources):

Next day, the students had an online follow-up session to explore UH Hilo’s bioacoustics lab, the Listening Observatory of Hawaiian Ecosystems or LOHE Lab, where scientists are studying the song and sounds of native birds to aid in conservation efforts.

“We had two guest speakers share some of their current research on the ‘alalā [Hawaiian crow] and BirdNet and talk about their career path journeys,” says Mason. (BirdNET is a research database platform developed at Cornell University that aims to recognize birds song through artificial intelligence and neural networks. The project is training computers to identify nearly 3,000 of the most common species of North America and Europe; Hawai‘i experts and citizen researchers are contributing song from native birds to the database.)

The last day of the program was spent at a field workshop at Laehala, Keaukaha, hosted by UH Hilo’s Multi-Spatial Environmental Graphical Analysis Lab or MEGA Lab, where scientists are studying and mapping coral reefs. Graduate students from the UH Hilo tropical conservation biology and environmental science program who are doing work in the lab, as well as two Arizona State University Native Hawaiian scientists from Hilo, shared their educational experiences and research with the students.

“During the workshop, the youth learned about how geospatial 3D modeling and [virtual reality technology] are being used by MEGA lab scientists to showcase, monitor, and protect reefs in Hawaiʻi and all around the world,” explains Mason.

During the hands-on part of the workshop, the students surveyed coral to learn about its biology, diversity, and distribution on the Hilo coastline.

Students gather under protective cover at beach to review informational materials.
Program participants gather to review informational materials during their field workshop to Keaukaha coastline. March 19, 2022. (Courtesy photo)

By Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. Jordan Hemmerly, who is earning her bachelor’s degree in marine science at UH Hilo, contributed.