Keiki get jump on rat lungworm education

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Gardens are a rich resource for classrooms, giving kids hands-on experience with the concepts they learn about in school.


Gardens are a rich resource for classrooms, giving kids hands-on experience with the concepts they learn about in school.

But in East Hawaii, school gardens are like any backyard garden: they’re a place where slugs and snails make their homes, and where there are snails and slugs, there’s a potential for rat lungworm disease.

Caused by Angiostrongylus cantonensis, a parasitic nematode, the disease impacts the brain and central nervous system.

The nematode has two hosts: rats and mollusks like snails and slugs. Humans can become infected if they accidentally ingest the nematode larvae, typically by eating unwashed produce where snails or slugs have left slime trails.

Precautions like washing fruits and vegetables are easy to take, but many people still don’t even know that rat lungworm disease is a problem.

Five years ago, while at an international rat lungworm conference in Honolulu, University of Hawaii at Hilo graduate student Kay Howe listened as representatives from the state Department of Health noted how hard it could be to reach out to and educate rural communities like those in East Hawaii.

So Howe and the Hawaii Island Rat Lungworm Working Group decided to tackle the problem from the bottom up.

They’d use school gardens as a foundation for educating the youngest community members — schoolchildren — about how to protect themselves against the disease, and in turn have them pass that information on to their families and friends.

“Even though it’s a bad problem, there’s some really great curriculum that could be developed for it,” Howe said during a talk May 14, shortly before introducing five public charter schools who had incorporated rat lungworm management and control into their own STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) programs during the past school year.

The classroom work was an outgrowth of other educational work Howe has collaborated on, like developing a rat lungworm activity book for second graders in partnership with four schools in the Hilo district.

Grant funding covered the activity book project, but Howe had to launch a GoFundMe campaign to get the school garden curriculum off the ground, raising more than $10,000.

The five schools — Kanu O Ka Aina Public Charter School, Kua O Ka La Public Charter School, Laupahoehoe Community Public Charter School, Na Wai Ola Public Charter School and Volcano School of the Arts and Sciences — were chosen because each is in a distinct climate and elevation zone, allowing for more in-depth data collection.

“That was one of my questions: What do we have here?” Howe said. “We know we have 46 invasive species of slugs and snail, but we don’t really know what we have in each location. There’s a lot of unknowns.”

Working with Howe and their respective garden teachers, the students learned about the life cycle of the rat lungworm parasite by building clay models of each phase.

They built shelters (called “snugglers,” a portmanteau of snails, slugs, and shelter) out of five different materials to see which was most enticing for mollusks.

They collected data, noting weather conditions, the number of species caught, and the total number of snails and slugs. Students used ID cards to label each species.

“I had to adapt some cards as we began to find some species that were not on the cards,” Howe said.

They learned that Waimea has very different slug and snail species than Hilo, and that prominent rat lungworm carriers like the semislug had moved all the way up to Laupahoehoe from the Puna district.

And they captured more than 4,000 snails, slugs and flatworms in the fall semester alone. Kanu O Ka Aina in Waimea had a noticeable garden snail problem — more than 3,400 captured in the fall — but none of the snails brought back for testing came back positive for rat lungworm.

“No news is good news,” said Kanu O Ka Aina teacher KiTeya Belford-Smith.

At Volcano School of Arts &Science, Rebecca Hatch’s fifth-grade students created a program that they could use to teach younger grades about rat lungworm disease. They hung posters around the school, and eagerly anticipated days when they could check their two trap locations.

Volcano is not prime slug habitat, however.

“We would look all the time, and didn’t see that many,” Hatch said. Of the species they did collect, leopard slugs were the most common.

Hatch herself hadn’t heard of rat lungworm disease until Howe reached out to the school, underscoring the importance of the awareness campaign.

At Na Wai Ola, the students and garden teacher Shari Frias set out to show how much of a difference education about rat lungworm disease could make.

“We learned a lot to the point where I’m not afraid of growing food,” Frias said. “They’re (the kids) not scared because we have the education.”

“The students are becoming leaders,” she said. “Leaders in the school, leaders in the community.”

As with the Volcano students, the Na Wai Ola classes of fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders partnered with younger grades to teach them about rat lungworm disease. Two students devised their own slug trap to better attract mollusks during a drought.

The classes reached out to businesses to get empty mayonnaise jars and made slug jugs to sell at a Na Wai Ola ho‘olaulea. They designed T-shirts featuring a catchy slogan (“Snuggle and Jug-Oh Your Slugs Away”) intended to pique people’s curiousity.

Once asked, the students could get into the details of rat lungworm disease and snail trapping, working once more towards the community ambassador role.

“We took it as far as we could,” Frias said.

“That is the value of this: it gives us a snapshot of what’s going on,” Howe said. And if data collection were kept up over time, “We could see how these species are moving around the island, and (if) our control is working.”

In spite of the early success, Howe said later that she was unsure of the project’s status for the coming school year.

“It’s been such a fun and rewarding project working with the teachers and students,” she said in an email.

“If the Hawaii DOE and…the Hawaii Island School Garden Huis pick it up as part of the school garden curriculum then yes, I would work on curriculum development as originally planned. The curriculum needs to be a collaborative effort.”


To contribute to the rat lungworm curriculum GoFundMe, visit

Email Ivy Ashe at

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