by Whitney Aragaki
I recently polled my AP Environmental Science students about their experiences exploring their island’s unique natural and cultural heritage sites. My curiosity was piqued when many of them said they had never walked on a lava field or traversed the high elevation cloud forests or the near shore reef systems, or the many areas in between. These students, within a year or so, will be graduating from high school and the majority of them will be attending college on the mainland. This lack of engagement in their own landscape is an important missed opportunity.
Beyond the geographic isolation and sandy beaches, overemphasized in college application essays, how many students recognize their luck to live in Hawaii? How many teachers prioritize this luck?
When students enroll in my AP Environmental Science class, I ask them why. Why is environmental science important? Not surprisingly, many students reply with versions of “I love the earth” or “Climate change has been in the news a lot and I want to learn more.” While these are valid reasons, they do not reflect the responsibility that our students have to our island home. These students have nearly a decade of compulsory education behind them before walking into y class and making these statements.
Why aren’t students learning about and feeling their responsibility to Hawaii? Where is the urgency to action and connection? Why aren’t we teaching this responsibility to place and action and stewardship?
The development of Nā Hopena A‘o is a start. Since 2013, the Hawaii Department of Education has invested time and resources into this framework to develop the skills, behaviors, and dispositions that reflect Hawaii’s context and honor the language and culture of Hawai‘i. Engaging students in meaningful conversations, activities, and assessments that elevate their global understanding and ground them in local context is crucial for the perpetuation of culture and language but the physical, natural aspects of Hawai‘i are key to this necessary learning.
As Nā Hopena A‘o was coming to fruition, a disease blanketed Hawai‘i Island. Rapid Ōhi‘a Death (ROD) decimated Ōhi‘a trees islandwide and sent the scientific research community into a frenzy. This tree is important, physically, in its relationship to native birds and forests. But is also important in a less visible way. Real parts of Hawaiian language and culture rely on the ōhi‘a existing. The description of Panaewa rains (Ka ua lu lehua o Pana‘ewa), for example, requires knowledge of the ōhi‘a lehua blossom. If ōhi‘a disappeared, parts of the Hawaiian language, important cultural stories and lessons, could lose their meaning. When connections between the natural and cultural realms are severed, more than just a tree is lost.
Students in Hawai‘i have the opportunity and responsibility to become the near-future stewards of our land. While they all have the basic opportunities to explore and learn, the current structure of science classes and educational funding doesn’t lend itself to actual environmental engagement and action. In previous decades, there was dedicated funding for field trips, field work, and community activities that would bring the classroom outside. Recently, we have focused our teaching on bringing the outside into the classroom. To combat student disengagement from the natural world, it is imperative that we flip our classrooms back outdoors and put our students directly in the natural world so they can truly learn about the connection between theory and the culture and place in which they live.
One of my students put it best when she said, “As someone who tries to perpetuate the sacredness and values of Hawaiian culture, I was taught to care for it. I try to live by the 'ōlelo noʻeau, or Hawaiian proverb, ‘He aliʻi ke ʻāina, he kauā ke kanaka.’ This translates to ‘Land is chief, man is it's servant,’ and speaks to the kahiko Hawai'i concept of how people are here to look after the land and not cause it harm nor destroy it. Because Hawai‘i nei takes care of us by providing food and life, we should mālama it in return. One way I can do that is to dedicate some of my time to becoming more educated about it.”
This is the knowledge and responsibility that we want all our students to take with them after graduating: a keen sense of belonging and responsibility to cultural and natural resources. And this is the epitome of a young spokesperson for Hawai‘i. Fostering more young people like this must be the goal of a public education in Hawai‘i.