New course at UH Hilo teaches kuleana and the importance of community

The class—Interdisciplinary Studies: Kuleana and Community—encourages students and instructors alike to strengthen their connections to UH Hilo, the community of Hilo, and Hawai‘i Island as a whole.

By Susan Enright.

A new course at University of Hawai‘i at Hilo is taking a holistic approach to teaching and learning that puts student success and community building activities at the forefront. The entry-level course is interdisciplinary, designed and taught by an eclectic group of professors, instructors, and peer mentors whose mission is to infuse students experientially with a strong sense of kuleana (responsibility) and the importance of community.

Photo from space of Hawaii Island.
Hawai‘i Island (NASA)

The course, Interdisciplinary Studies: Kuleana and Community (IS 150), encourages students and instructors alike to develop and strengthen their connections to UH Hilo, the community of Hilo, and Hawai‘i Island as a whole. These myriad connections are made through all participants teaching each other and learning together about the island’s place names, stories, and cultural significance, while also being hands-on with mālama ‘āina (taking care of the land).

“If you are looking for a truly reflexive course that connects you to peers, this campus community, the wider Hawai‘i Island ‘ohana, and the ‘āina, I would highly encourage you to enroll in this course,” says Colby Miyose, an assistant professor of communication who was born and raised in Hilo and is teaching a section of the course this semester. “We go on huaka‘i [excursions], we learn through arts-based, visual-based, and narrative-based approaches. Most importantly, we try to relate with everyone and everything.”

Professor of English Kirsten Møllegaard, who also is teaching a section of the class, says the course reflects the unique experience of living in Hawai‘i.

“The islands’ deep history and rich cultural traditions provide all of us, whether we’re kama‘āina [native born] or malihini [newcomer], with opportunities to learn, grow, and become aware of our own place in the world and, by extension, what our kuleana to the world is,” says Møllegaard.

“To me, two key elements stand out in this process,” she adds. “One, to respect, honor, and learn about Hawai‘i as place through community-based mālama ‘āina activities; and two, to build meaningful connections to specific places by exploring wahi pana [storied places] on the island.”

A student’s exit review of the course indicates these ways of teaching and learning resonate. “This course was amazing! It felt like being in family discussing the beautiful and rich history of Hawai‘i Island. I would recommend anybody to take this class. Huaka‘i were essential and fun to learn more about historical areas while being in the presence. I felt the cultural significance and feelings of gratitude.”

Creating the course

The academic foundation of the course was created by Professor of History Kerri Inglis with Professor of Education Michele Ebersole. During the development of the course over the past few semesters, in addition to Miyose and Møllegaard, the creator’s group has grown to include Associate Professor Kekoa Harmon and Assistant Professor Kanani Māka‘imoku from Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiian Language, along with Assistant Professor of English Patsy Iwasaki and Instructor of Education Colby McNaughton. Together, the team has brought to life a course that Inglis says “incorporates the fundamentals of a university 101 class, but at its core presents ʻāina-based service-learning in the community requiring huaka‘i, with a ka‘ao [legends] framework, as its foundation.”

“We started as a pilot in spring ’22, taught again in fall ’22, and now our third set of offerings in spring ’23,” says Inglis. She explains that by faculty using a master syllabus, but tailoring the curriculum to one’s own discipline, each is able to teach this class in a way that encourages learners, meaning both students and faculty, to:

      • Develop and strengthen connections to UH Hilo and island communities
      • Engage in mālama ‘āina (care for the land) service learning activities on campus and in the community
      • Learn the significance of place names, mo‘olelo (stories), and ka‘ao (epic legends) connected to the island environment
      • Enjoy huaka‘i (journeys) to wahi pana (storied places) around the island (virtual and in-person)
      • Explore their personal huaka‘i as a student at UH Hilo

Inglis says faculty are receiving training and support in the curriculum and content development, and engaging in discussions with one another to strengthen and improve that curriculum as an on-going process with cultural practitioner Huihui Kanahele-Mossman, who is Kuleana and Community curriculum developer at Kīpuka Native Hawaiian Student Center, a provider of grant funding for the course. Faculty also are participating in culturally-based huaka‘i with other faculty for their own learning.

Through taking the course, students are able to earn both the required Global and Community Citizenship credit and the Hawai‘i Pan-Pacific general education credit. These requirements—and this Kuleana and Community class—reflect UH Hilo’s vision to “engage every student in applied learning that links theory with practice in ways that are collaborative with the distinctive natural and cultural environments of Hawai‘i and promote responsible participation in a global society.”

Students stand on massive cinder cone looking out at the vista of the island.
Students on huaka‘i to Pu‘u Huluhulu, a volcanic cone located near the center of Hawai‘i Island. (Photo: Kirsten Møllegaard)

Interdisciplinary place-based teaching and learning

Ebersole says the beauty of the course is that when a group of faculty are using a shared syllabus and resources, but with each bringing their own expertise and interests to their sections of the course, it makes it truly interdisciplinary. “No matter how long we have resided on this island or in this place, we all have the opportunity to bring in unique talents, interests, and experiences to the students,” she says.

For example, Ebersole has a background and interest in culturally responsive literature and literacy in Hawai‘i. Her Department of Education colleague McNaughton brings an interest in conservation science, natural resource preservation, and sustainability in island communities across the state. Combined, as they are doing this semester, they bring unique knowledge and teaching to their section of the course.

“Each week we read and discuss stories or mo‘olelo grounded in place,” Ebersole explains. “We use various instructional techniques such as taking students on huaka‘i, learning to kilo or observe our natural elements closely, having students reflect deeply on their personal identity and participate in researching mo‘olelo and storied places on our island.”

At right is a photo of students hiking down to the coastline. At left is a student quote: “This course was amazing! It felt like being in family discussing the beautiful and rich history of Hawai‘i Island. I would recommend anybody to take this class. Huaka‘i were essential and fun to learn more about historical areas while being in the presence. I felt the cultural significance and feelings of gratitude.”
In the quote above, a student reflects on their time in the course Kuleana and Community. At right, students in the class go on huaka‘i, an excursion. (From course flyer, courtesy of Kerri Inglis)

In another example of interdisciplinary collaboration, Ebersole co-taught a section of the course with Assistant Professor of English Iwasaki, who created a unit of study that focused on an area on the Hāmākua Coast. Students read Iwasaki’s novel, Hamakua Hero: A True Plantation Story, that examines the ambitious life and tragic death in 1889 of Japanese immigrant and Honoka‘a hero Katsu Goto.

The students learned about that particular moku (district), traveled to Honoka‘a, learned more about the history at the Honoka‘a Heritage Center, listened to a guest speaker at the Honoka‘a Hongwanji, and offered service at the Hāmākua Jodo Mission where the main character in the story Katsu Goto is buried.

“In this way, [Assistant Professor Iwasaki] brought her background experiences and content expertise to the course and integrated it seamlessly into the Kuleana and Community course curriculum,” says Ebersole, adding that all faculty at UH Hilo bring a unique set of skills, interests, expertise and knowledge within each discipline, which may be integrated into an entry level place-based course like Kuleana and Community.

Peer Mentoring

Students are also introduced to different resources and taught to develop effective study skills throughout the course. One of those resources is peer mentoring, which Møllegaard notes is a valuable feature of the course.

Kukui Akana
Kukui Akana

“Peer mentors support the students in practical tasks like tutoring written assignments and guiding their research for class presentations,” she explains. “Equally important is the example that the peer mentors set as role models. It is validating for students to experience peers who take an active interest in their course work. Peer mentors help students envision their own success and give them support on their learning journey.”

This semester, peer “navigator” Kukui Akana, who is double majoring in Hawaiian studies and communication and minoring in history with a certificate in Pacific islands studies, is providing content and skills through mele and oli (song and chants). She also is educating the professors about technology.

Ebersole explains, “She is also teaching us how to use the Padlet software as a resource that another Kuleana and Community instructor, Kanani Māka‘imoku uses regularly. We have incorporated the idea of having presentations from Professor of English Kirsten Møllegaard.”

At left is a photo of students planting ti. At right is a quotation: Something that was beneficial to my growth as a college student was learning how to use the library in the Hawaiian section. That is knowledge I can take with me that will help me in other classes too."
In the above quote, a student reflects on their time in the course Kuleana and Community. At left, students in the class plant ti during a huaka‘i. (From course flyer, courtesy of Kerri Inglis)

‘A‘ohe pau ka ‘ike i ka hālau ho‘okahi (one learns from many sources)

Professor of English Møllegaard says she has always appreciated the value of learning from many sources. “It informs my research and the way I teach,” she says, citing the Hawaiian ‘ōlelo no‘eau (proverb) and motto of UH Hilo, ‘a‘ohe pau ka ‘ike i ka hālau ho‘okahi (one learns from many sources), as “capturing the essence of this value.”

“It is really empowering to witness how students apply their classroom learning to outdoor activities, such as recognizing and naming Hawaiian plants when they render service in community gardens,” she says.

“Another example is the aha-moments that arise when my class visits Pu‘ukohola Heiau National Historic Site and the pieces of the complex history behind Kamehameha I’s ascent to power begin to fall into place,” Møllegaard adds. “I learn, too, and I see myself as a partner on this journey.”

Students explore a large lava field filled with petroglyphs.
Students on a huaka‘i at the petroglyph field along the King’s Trail, Waikoloa. (Photo: Kirsten Møllegaard)

Professor of History Inglis says the faculty are very grateful for the support received through the Kīpuka Native Hawaiian Student Center, whose securing of grants has provided funding for the training, teaching, and class activities. “And while it continues to be a work in progress, and will always be such, it has been a wonderful journey of learning for all involved,” she says.

Professor of Education Ebersole echoes the sentiment. “We are excited to be able to introduce and use different pedagogical skills with students across the disciplines at UH Hilo in hopes of inspiring a future generation of educators and students at the university.”

Story by Susan Enright, a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

Riana Jicha, who is double majoring in administration of justice and political science at UH Hilo, contributed to this story.