Q: Please tell us about yourself and the career path that you have chosen.
Hirakami: My career path started as a substitute teacher at Pahoa High and Intermediate School in the rural town of Pahoa on the island of Hawaii. The area was completely agricultural up to 1980 when the sugar plantation closed down. As such, Pahoa and the district of Puna is one of the most socio-economically depressed area in the State of Hawaii. I started as a substitute teacher, but in the second year of substituting I was introduced into the world of grant writing. My first grant was to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. It was an educational grant with a focus on intermediate students of Hawaiian ancestry. At that time, the statistics demonstrated a lack of interest or achievement of Native Hawaiians in the subject of math. My grant was to add tutors in the classroom that would help Hawaiian students find the relevancy to their culture and math. Using a heiau (temple) as an example, I asked them if they could square the corners of the stone temple using only a piece of string. Using the Pythagorean theorem, they experienced the use of equal lengths of string to measure the hypotenuse to square the stone temple. My experience in the classroom led me to teaching science at the high school level. I really enjoyed my new talent, but there was one element missing: school environment and culture. I witnessed a lot of disrespect, vandalism, and vulgarity. When charter schools were first legislated in 2000, five charters opened in Hawaii. I decided to teach at Waters of Life Public Charter School. The following year, the State of Hawaii announced the opportunity for 20 more charter schools. On June 21, 2001, Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science Public Charter School was granted its charter. HAAS opened its doors to students on September 3, 2001. A week later, September 11, 2001, the world was in a different state of mind.
Q: Tell us about The Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science, particularly by focusing on your science education.
Hirakami: Hawaii Academy of Arts & Science PCS (HAAS) is located in a rural, social economically depressed area of the State of Hawaii. As a result, area public schools were mostly focused on the two subject areas that all schools were then being graded on: Reading and Math. We opened the charter school to offer "hands on" learning where we would integrate arts into a science rich curriculum. Our elementary program is heavily influenced by the Waldorf curriculum of Rudolph Steiner. When the STEM initiative started in the early part of this century, HAAS was one of the first recipients of a grant to further the STEM learning in schools. We then added Arts to the program calling it STEAM. The STEAM students have been producing usable artwork like custom ukuleles, decorative wood refrigerator magnets, jewelry and more. Oh, and we have a full curriculum of Science including Physical Science, Biology, Chemistry, and Marine Science.
Q: Can you please specifically share with us a few aspects and outcomes of the designing of the lava utility pole protection project that your students were involved in recently?
Hirakami: During the 2014 – 2015 school year we at Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science experienced what it is like to have a lava flow heading for our school. We were not sure if our campus would be spared and so we planned quickly to prepare our campus population and contribute to our community under this impending hazard. Rather than sit still in fear, we chose to take action for ourselves and our community. Our school director suggested to Mr. Clause’s Advanced STEM class one day, “Why don’t you guys design something to protect the power poles.” That was the start of what became a service oriented movement within our school. The STEM kids set right to work using their engineering skills in the Autodesk Inventor computer program which allows the designer to develop ideas in 3D and even conduct modeled testing.
Our STEM classes focus on computer architecture and tech work, code writing, and games and theory. We include engineering skills such as aerodynamics, structural, and mechanical, which accommodate cognitive spatial development in the student. Further the students take a concept of their own from idea to holding the object in their hand. And of course they examine all the facets of business and marketing endeavors, thus preparing a student to create their own product or business. Our students at HAAS have received great recognition both nationally and worldwide for their work. The STEM students have been featured on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and PBS Washington DC just to name a few. HAAS STEM has won contests against much larger schools placing in the top three in their state. Some students have gone on to win the National Microsoft Cup or become great programmers or top level engineers working in leadership positions. At HAAS we instill the desire to achieve, be problem solvers, and serve the greater good.
In response to the impending lava flow the schools STEM students rallied on several fronts. One team of STEM kids built and set live the “Hope for HAAS” social media campaign which raised over ten thousand dollars. Another team, mentioned earlier, took the inspiration provided by the school’s director and designed power pole protection barriers. At that same time the HELCO Power Co. was also designing pole barriers. The students’ plans were submitted to the power company and HELCO acknowledged the students work stating the designs were great and matched their own. From that point the students volunteered to worked closely with numerous public officials and municipal groups, such as the DOT or Department of Transportation for whom they designed and did heat calculations for an “over new lava paving system” to allow emergency services to get people to the hospital faster and goods and services delivered to market. They worked with Public Works and County Engineers on delivering water to the town of Pahoa across the proposed flow area. They also worked with Civil Defense on furthering the ability of emergency services to serve the public in what was to be a very isolated portion of the Puna District. They learned firsthand from and about FEMA on the process of natural hazard assessment and mitigation. And HAAS STEM worked directly with the Civil Defense and HELCO Power Co. on the protection of power systems and got to see their ideas manifest and be put to the test.
The advanced STEM group even designed a Vog Gas Scrubber which cleans the toxic SO2 from the air emitted by lava. The first design was for school classrooms and was completely isle engineered so anyone could make one and plans were distributed through Ace Hardware Stores state wide. This design was then taken by Civil Defense and was distributed to the world and further it was praised in congress and thus is in the Congressional Record. Since then, the HAAS STEM students have designed and built an indoor smaller quieter rechargeable model which may offer great benefit worldwide. At Hawaii Academy we will never focus on fear but rather take the opportunity to focus on the questions that communities engage in when facing natural hazards, then take action and give back to the community.
Q: “The mission of the Hawai’i Academy of Arts and Science is to educate, enrich, and inspire the whole student to thrive by understanding the past, navigating the present, and preparing for the future.” Can you please elaborate for us on your school’s mission?
Hirakami: Of course, all schools' mission is to educate students. But often what is missing is the enrichment part, which actually really make school meaningful for children. So we have block scheduling for the core subjects of Language Arts, Math, Social Studies, and Science. Our electives is the enrichment part. We have great list of enrichment classes like: music, many types of art instruction, yoga, surfing, tai chi chuan, skateboarding, Hawaiian and Tahitian dance, foreign languages, gardening, native forest restoration, and too many to name. We also enrich and inspire the student to give back to their community. They need 120 hours of community service to graduate. This means that they have learned the valuable lesson in giving by volunteering their time to various community organizations. There is no better preparation for the future than teaching them to be life long learners and to think "out of the box".
Q: Finally, in your opinion, how important is it to include the traditional Hawaiian science knowledge in today’s STEM education at your school?
Hirakami: We are literally surrounded by Hawaiian science. We are living on the slopes of an active volcano. Our highest mountain Mauna Kea is home to the world's best telescopes. We are an island state totally surrounded by ocean. We have a diverse array of endemic plants and animas both land and ocean. One of the early STEM projects was an aquaculture project which early Hawaiians were famous for. The students designed a series of ponds that would have fish in the top two ponds and plants in the third and lowest ponds. The ponds were filled with rainwater that comes off our school roofs. The technology came into play when the students designed and built a photovoltaic system that ran a 12 volt pump that circulated water from the cleaned water (plant pond which absorbed the nutrients from the top two ponds) and circulated it back to the top fish pond.