Art program inspires school children to explore ocean science

“Artivists” camp teaches kids about ocean issues, marine conservation, and coral reef protection through art-making, hands-on activities, and field trips to Hilo Bay.

By Susan Enright.

A marine science laboratory at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo co-hosted a community program this summer teaching local children ages 11 to 14 how to unleash their scientific curiosity about the ocean through art activities.

John Burns on boat
John Burns

The week-long summer camp, Youth Artivists Hawai‘i, was co-hosted by the UH Hilo Multiscale Environmental Graphical Analysis Laboratory, commonly called MEGA Lab, that specializes in coral reef research. The lab is run by founder John Burns, associate professor of marine science and expert on coral health, disease, and ecosystems.

“The MEGA Lab was thrilled to support this collaboration between artists, scientists, and creators,” says Burns.

The summer camp shifted what is commonly called STEM activity—science, technology, engineering, and math—to include art, creating a STEAM educational program. The goal of the camp was to empower young people through bridging art and science, encouraging them to think creatively about solutions for a healthy and sustainable ocean.

Participants in the summer program learned about ocean issues, marine conservation, and coral reef protection through art-making, hands-on activities, and field trips to Hilo Bay.

“Science is really a multidimensional process, and sadly, we often lose the connection to artistic creativity,” says Burns. “The Youth Artivists Hawaiʻi camp is a great way to engage a diverse audience and showcase how art and science can intersect to promote positive stewardship of our natural resources. The kids were amazing and even hosted a raging rock concert to celebrate the end of the camp. I was so impressed with their commitment to the project and enthusiasm for the environment.”

A highlight for the kids was working alongside Cinzah Merkins, a professional muralist from New Zealand, to create an environmentally-themed mural permanently installed at MEGA Lab, which is located inside the Mokupāpapa Discovery Center at Hilo Bayfront.

MEGA lab, which is geared toward community outreach and education, produced a video about the summer program (see top of this post).

The video opens with Crispin Nakoa, an alumnus of UH Hilo’s marine science baccalaureate program and tropical conservation biology and environmental science graduate program, now in the environmental life sciences doctoral program at the University of Arizona. He is the equipment manager at MEGA Lab and provided leadership during the summer camp, including supporting the instructional activities and helping local students grasp the concept of communicating complex ideas through artistic expression.

He talks about the importance of experiencing this kind of program at an early age, something not available to him when growing up on Hawai‘i Island.

Crispin Nakoa pictured
Crispin Nakoa

“There’s not a lot of places where, in the same day, you can go surfing, go diving, go jump off waterfalls, go hiking to the forest, and even go up and see the snow during certain times of the year,” says the surfer-scientist. “Hilo is one of the best places to have access to all these different resources.”

“When I was a kid, I just thought that this place was awesome and nothing was ever going to change,” says Nakoa. “But something that was missing through all the fun times that I did have, was really an understanding of all the things that put those places that I love at risk. I think it would have been helpful to learn more about that at a young age. It really would have benefitted me in my home, to learn it sooner rather than after years and years of school.”

The mural project was part of the PangeaSeed Foundation‘s flagship program Sea Wall: Artists for Oceans. Since its inception in 2014, the program has produced over 450 murals in 18 countries. The goal is 500 murals in 19 countries to inspire communities to become better stewards of the sea with pride in their local resources.

Along with MEGA Lab and PangeaSeed Foundation, co-host of the Hilo summer program was the East Hawai‘i Cultural Center, with funding provided by the Wanderlust Fund, Atherton Family Foundation, and First Hawaiian Bank.⁣

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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.

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