The Islands of Opportunity Alliance is a network of higher education institutions from Hawai‘i and 10 Pacific Island nations with a mission to expand access to careers in STEM fields for underrepresented populations.
By Leah Sherwood.
The University of Hawai‘i at Hilo hosted a two-day conference of educators from Hawai‘i and 10 Pacific Island nations working toward encouraging students from underrepresented populations to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, commonly called STEM. The conference was held Jan. 10 and 11 on the UH Hilo campus.
At the 2019 annual conference, the Islands of Opportunity Alliance (IOA), which is led by the Office of the Chancellor at UH Hilo, kicked off their 2019 STEM mentorship programs, which are funded by $600,000 of a continuing $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Topics at the conference included inter-campus programs, curriculum enhancements, student learning communities, peer tutoring, enrichment through research experiences, the promotion of STEM graduate degrees and employment, institutional support, and sustainability plans, among other discussions and presentations.
Since its inception in 2006, the alliance has developed as a network of higher education institutions in the Pacific region within the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program, which was launched by the NSF in 1991 with a mission to encourage and facilitate access to careers in STEM fields for underrepresented populations. The program is particularly aimed at encouraging students from two-year programs to continue their education at four-year institutions.
UH Hilo serves as the administrative hub of the Islands of Opportunity Alliance, which includes 10 other partner institutions in American Sāmoa, Guam, Hawai‘i, Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands.
“UH Hilo is proud to be part of such a distinguished alliance dedicated to giving more undergraduate students hands-on experience in the sciences,” says Marcia Sakai, interim chancellor at UH Hilo and principal investigator of the program. “We share the common goal of increasing underrepresented professionals in STEM fields and I feel inspired by each member of our alliance—together we are helping to strengthen not only the scientific communities of Hawai‘i and the Pacific Island states, but also the scientific communities of the world to become more diverse in the quest for and understanding of scientific knowledge.”
The conference was attended by approximately 30 participants from across the Pacific region, including campus coordinators and administrators from each of the 11 alliance institutions, as well as the governing board, two external advisory boards, and an external NSF evaluator from Washington D.C.
Joseph Genz, an associate professor of anthropology at UH Hilo, serves as IOA project director. The alliances’s day-to-day operations are handled by Mārata Tamaira, IOA project manager based at UH Hilo.
Genz says the main goal of the alliance is to increase the number of underrepresented minority students, with a focus on Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students who graduate with baccalaureate degrees in STEM disciplines with strong research experiences and then go on to pursue graduate degrees or enter a STEM career back in their local communities.
“The benefit is not just the STEM degree, but what the students are going to do with their STEM degree,” says Genz. “In the vast majority of cases, that means going back home to their island communities and using their degrees to build up the capacities of their communities, fostering a system of self-empowerment.”
Genz explains NSF funds mainly support students on their respective campuses, but also sends them to conferences. “Travel costs in the Pacific are prohibitive,” he explains. “Students on the mainland can travel to conferences by jumping in a van. But for a student to fly from Palau to attend an international conference on the mainland can cost $3,000.”
Most of the funding at UH Hilo is used to support students in the Keaholoa STEM Program, which is now funded completely through LSAMP.
This year the alliance is strengthening ties between alliance members.
“The call to increase ties within the alliance actually came from the NSF,” says Genz. “In the past they had expressed concerns that each campus was its own entity, and we were just dispersing funds. So we’ve developed explicit strategies to tighten the connections across all 11 campuses. One strategy is to provide research experiences for undergraduates, and this effort is being coordinated by Frank Camacho from the University of Guam. Another idea we’re working on is a transfer program to promote the pipeline into the four-year institutions.”
Integrating traditional knowledge and Western science
One challenge facing the alliance is how to supplement Western STEM training models with Pacific culture-normed understandings of motivation, attainment, and success. Genz notes that Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders descend from cultural heritages that have traditionally pursued indigenous forms of science and technology, including astronomy, agriculture, aquaculture, environmental management, marine science, climatology, biology, and architectural engineering.
Interim Chancellor Sakai says, “We are finding this awakening to the value of indigenous knowledge is almost second nature to our students. They are ready to claim their heritage as scientists, to redefine and expand Western science, to be inclusive of ancient knowledge in their scientific endeavors, to engage in a new and vital way to do science in the 21st century. And it is our alliance—our Islands of Opportunity Alliance—that strengthens our quest, our resolve, to build on this legacy of scientific engagement empowering our students through culturally aware STEM education that honors traditional knowledge systems while also embracing Western scientific ways of knowing.”
The broader vision for the alliance is to build on this legacy of scientific engagement through culturally-resonant STEM education initiatives that integrate traditional knowledge systems while also embracing Western scientific ways of knowing.
“The Keaholoa STEM program at UH Hilo is very grounded in Hawaiian values and there’s a core idea of being place-based and trying to immerse students in Hawaiian ways of learning,” says Genz. “This involves taking students out on excursions, huakaʻi, for experiential learning. That means everybody hopping into the fish pond, cleaning it, testing the salinity of the water, and getting that shared experience.”
Genz also praises UH Hilo’s Pacific Internship Programs for Exploring Sciences (PIPES) program for the way it has successfully invoked kuleana, a Hawaiian concept of shared responsibility that inspires students to do work that is meaningful and useful to their communities.
About the author of this story: Leah Sherwood is a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University.
About the photographer of the conference session: Raiatea Arcuri is a professional photographer majoring in business at UH Hilo. He was awarded USA Young Landscape Photographer of the Year 2016 (read his blog post about the winning photograph).