Astronomers, others bedazzle students with engaging hands-on lessons

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Engineer Angelic Ebbers and seventh grader DJ Amador, 14, watch an image of diamond spin in a pyramid hologram Wednesday during the Journey Through the Universe program at Hilo Intermediate School.

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald From left, seventh graders Ikaika DeMello-Iokia, 12, and Lee Marvin Ugalde, 12, watch an image of the character Goku spin in a pyramid hologram Wednesday during the Journey Through the Universe program at Hilo Intermediate School.

Students at Hilo Intermediate School held lightning in their hands Wednesday.

As laughing students watched tiny figures of light dance in the air above their smartphone screens, Janice Harvey, a spokeswoman for Gemini Observatory, asked “Isn’t science fun?” to an affirmative cheer from the children.

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Harvey was visiting a class at Hilo Intermediate as part of Journey Through the Universe Week, a science education and outreach program organized by the observatory to promote science education and literacy in Hawaii Island schools.

More than 80 educators from all of the Maunakea observatories will visit more than 300 classrooms this week, sharing hands-on science lessons with students of all ages.

And although the program, now celebrating its 15th year, is broadly focused on astronomy, the lesson presented to the Hilo Intermediate students by Gemini engineer Angelic Ebbers on Wednesday was about illusions.

Under Ebbers’ instruction, students assembled simple pyramids out of plastic and affixed them to the screens of their smartphones. Simple videos played on the phones — a dancing couple, crackling lightning, a fluttering hummingbird — and, reflected upon the faces of the pyramid, created the illusion of a “Star Wars”-esque hologram hovering over the screen.

The demonstration, Ebbers said, was an intuitive and tangible example of a simple scientific principle: the law of reflection.

“We like to do something hands-on and something familiar that connects science with what students have experienced in the real world,” she said. “It helps students understand how it works and how they could work in science in the future.”

While many of the students were energetic, they engaged with Ebbers’ explanation of reflection and reacted with awe upon the demonstration of the “holograms.”

“I’m gonna trip my brother out with this,” laughed 12-year-old Lee Marvin-Ugalde as a miniature cartoon character revolved over his phone.

While much of the program’s work takes place this week, Harvey said Journey Through the Universe continues throughout the year, with educators visiting classrooms throughout the Hilo-Waiakea Complex Area and in the northern part of the island. The lessons differ from grade to grade and change from year to year; Ebbers said the hologram lesson is a new one for her.

Harvey said lessons at the high school level have components that discuss potential STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) career paths for students, but the lessons at lower levels help show students that working in science is a possibility: “You, too, can work at an observatory. You, too, can be a scientist,” she said.

“It works so well because we have some of the brightest people on the island finding ways to teach kids,” Harvey said. “And when you see the lessons, you see we really are making a difference.”

Hilo Intermediate teacher Cindy Fong agreed, saying Wednesday’s lesson engaged students in a way that can be difficult.

“Middle-schoolers are hands-on learners,” Fong said. “If you can give them something to do with their hands, their minds are focused. If you don’t, then they’re just trying to figure out how to cause trouble.”

Fong said she strives to keep her classes as similar to the Journey Through the Universe sessions as possible, “sneaking lessons through the back door,” but added that middle school students can be difficult to get to engage with lessons.

“But look at how it’s working,” Fong said, as students labored over their hologram projectors or gathered around others’ completed devices. “You can’t get much better proof than that.”

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Tribune-Herald reporter Stephanie Salmons contributed to this article.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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