Virtual program lets students explore Hawaii’s special places without leaving classroom

  • White sand lines the coastline at Makalawena. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)
  • An anchialine pond is located near the shoreline at Makalawena Beach. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)
  • Palms provide shade over an anchialine pond close to the shore near Makalawena. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)
  • Palms provide shade over an anchialine pond close to the shore near Makalawena. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)
  • Kaleihua Medeiros speaks with attendees at the Kamehameha Schools Education Technology conference on Tuesday about a project she did that was inspired by a virtual field trip to Makalawena. (Photo courtesy Mathieu Williams)

KAILUA-KONA — From its anchialine pools to the historical accounts of those who made their lives in the area, Makalawena in North Kona is abundant with opportunities for students to connect with the stories and natural resources of the island.

The site’s remote setting can make it a tough place for students to explore, however, especially through a conventional field trip.

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But a new virtual field trip, produced through a partnership between Kamehameha Schools and Arizona State University, is giving students everywhere a whole new way to immerse themselves into one of Hawaii’s wahi pana, or special places.

“I think it really helped the students understand Makalawena — the stories of Makalawena,” said Kealakehe Intermediate School digital media and technology teacher Mathieu Williams. “It’s not just about recreation and white, sandy beaches that we swim and surf at, or fish at or whatever it might be. But there’s a deeper meaning to this place.”

By giving students an opportunity to learn about the stories at Makalawena, one of the hopes is that students come away inspired to take a closer look at the rich history that lay just beneath the surface of the land all around them.

“Sometimes it takes a little bit of understanding someone else’s area and how they bring that to life to really look in,” said Kaimana Barcarse, West Hawaii regional director for Kamehameha Schools. “So our hope is that people are not just inspired by what they see in the virtual field trip relative to Makalawena, but they see that and they understand it and it provides them a deeper dive into where they are and to look at things a little bit differently.”

Over the last school year, Williams and his students have been doing just that — using the virtual field trip as a way to explore the concept of moolelo before going out in search of the stories that have yet to be told and learning about how they can use the tools of digital media to share those stories.

The efforts produced a wide range of tales, with some students taking a deep dive into the history of their own Kealakehe Intermediate School campus, others focusing on the stories of Waipio while another group drew connections between the cultural practices of Makalawena and those of the Marshall Islands.

Williams and his students also shared their experiences with the virtual field trip and the projects they produced at the Kamehameha Schools Education Technology conference this past week in Honolulu.

The virtual field trip, or virtual huakai, at Makalawena is available at https://sites.google.com/view/vft. That website also includes a virtual field trip at Kahaluu Ma Kai, another place with deep significance in the region.

The field trips don’t just introduce students to the resources and histories of the sites, but also encourage students to think critically about the area and how people would have engaged with the land and its resources.

As part of the virtual huakai at Makalawena, for example, students are asked to explore a 360-degree view at the shoreline and then share, in writing, what fascinates them about the area and consider how Hawaiians would have been able to survive such environments. The virtual experience also lets students dive below the ocean’s surface to discover life at the reef as well as travel to the local anchialine pools and Kapoikai Pond. It also allows people access without trying to navigate a rough road or hike across sand and lava fields.

And at locations like Kahaluu Ma Kai, which gets regular visits and is intended to be used as a cultural and educational space, Barcarse said the virtual field trips can help students familiarize themselves with the area and then immerse themselves more deeply when they visit in person.

For a science class, Barcarse said, that might be exploring the freshwater springs that bubble up near the heiau, so when students visit their experience can be tailored for them.

Likewise an astronomy class can learn about Hapaialii and the alignment and movements of the sun virtually before visiting the area in person and witnessing the sun set over one of the stones that mark the solstice or equinox.

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But beyond just how teachers can incorporate the program into their lessons, Williams emphasized the opportunity the program has in getting youth to make their own connections through the experience.

“Because when the students are able to make connections, that’s when the learning becomes real and relevant,” he said. “And most importantly, it truly drives depth and meaning into an experience that they’ll never forget.”

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