Kama'aina Observatory Experience

Over one year of successful outreach

Science and Travel Writer and Photographer Alyssa Grace

“I appreciated the balance between learning about telescopes and all the other wonderful things folks are doing to preserve cultural and natural resources.” - Charmaine Higa-McMillan, Associate Professor of Psychology

In October 2015, then-President Barack Obama announced the release of the Kama‘āina Observatory Experience (KOE) at the last White House Star Party. KOE is a free monthly event for Hawai’i residents with valid ID. This event essentially provides a holistic view and perspective on multiple aspects of the Mauna Kea alongside tours of two different telescopes.

Since its debut, KOE has been a great success filling up its spots within minutes. “We’ve had an overwhelming positive response every single month,” said Rose Zimmerman, Interpretive Guide for the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station (VIS) who has been with KOE since its beginning. The event starts at 10am at Hale Pohaku, a living facility for workers on the mountain such as rangers and astronomers, 4,603 feet below the summit and right next to the VIS.

Within Hale Pohaku, KOE visitors hear numerous talks given by the Office of Mauna Kea Management. This session lasts for one hour and ranges in topics from Hawaiian culture, management, conservation, and the unique environment of Mauna Kea.

“I was very impressed with the cultural presentation by [Dash],” said Charmaine Higa-McMillan, an associate professor in the psychology department at UH Hilo. “I appreciated the balance between learning about the telescopes and about all of the other wonderful things that folks are doing to preserve the cultural and natural resources,” said Higa-McMillan.

After the presentations, participants eat lunch provided by ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center and ice cream. Then they head up the mountain to tour two different telescopes. Every month tours a different pair of telescopes. On April 15, participants visited Gemini Observatory, an 8.1 meter telescope and Canada France Hawai’i Telescope, at 3.58 meters. (Disclosure: aside from my writing for Ke Kalahea, I also work at Gemini.)

Every telescope on the mountain specializes in some different aspect of astronomical observations. Scientists and outreach specialists from their respective telescopes give their own telescope’s tour allowing visitors to learn straight from the source.

“Everything I learned about the telescopes was new for me! From the mechanics to how they are operated to how scientists request data to funding - I could go on and on. It was an information-rich day!” said Higa-McMillan.

KOE participants aren’t the only ones who get to learn from and enjoy this event. Hawai’i Forest and Trail (HFT) is a tour group contracted as the KOE transportation to and from the summit from Hale Pohaku. “[The summit road] can be dangerous if you don’t what you’re doing. It’s an unpaved, and very steep road,” said Jeff Manzo, Interpretive Guide for Hawai’i Forest and Trail.

“This is the third [KOE] I’ve done. I always take new information from these tours and use them in my own [HFT] tours,” said Manzo. He noted that HFT has kama‘āina discounts and specials, and that HFT can take you places normally not open to the public - including some of the island’s most exclusive waterfalls.

“There’s a lot of things happening in the background that makes this big tour,” said Zimmerman. “I think it’s an incredible experience to see inside the observatories and inside the facilities where staff work. I think it gives a different perspective of Mauna Kea and how we all operate and care for the mountain whether we’re working up here or visiting and I think that's really important,” said Zimmerman.

Higa-McMillan ultimately hopes that more students at UH Hilo will utilize these and other facilities on island. “Take advantage of this opportunity! I gained so much more than a tour of the telescopes. I came away with a much greater appreciation for everything that is happening on Mauna Kea and I got to see first hand how much those involved respect the mountain and want to see it preserved”