Maunakea observatories

This editorial by University of Hawaiʻi President David Lassner, Hawaiʻi State Department of Education Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi and Canada-France-Hawaiʻi Telescope Director Doug Simons ran in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on May 28, 2017.

Another quiet revolution in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education was sparked in Hawaiʻi’s education system and has reached ignition.

A new partnership co-signed this week by the University of Hawaiʻi, the Hawaiʻi State Department of Education and the Maunakea Observatories will play a key role in formalizing and expanding research-based STEM opportunities for Hawaiʻi high school students. Through the Maunakea Scholars program, we will ensure that the unparalleled research capacity of the Maunakea Observatories directly benefits the students of Hawaiʻi through a lasting partnership.

The Maunakea Scholars program was launched last year to see what would happen if we provided Hawaiʻi’s aspiring young astronomers with unprecedented access to the world’s most powerful telescopes. More than two dozen Hawaiʻi public high school students were provided access to Maunakea observatories.

The student projects so far have been nothing less than astonishing. Ashlyn Takamiya and Justin Fernando, students at Kapolei High School, used the Subaru telescope to compare the spectra of Type I and Type II supernova remnants for their research titled, “Comparing Elements in Different Supernova Remnants.”

Jasmine Atcherson of Nānākuli High School studied a rogue planet with GNIRS at Gemini Observatory. She used the world’s most sensitive infrared telescope to measure the composition of this free-floating planet’s atmosphere.

And Spencer Young at Kalani High School used an instrument called POL2 at the East Asian Observatory to measure the magnetic field of the Orion Nebula to determine the origin of the nebula’s shape for his project, “Star Forming Regions and How They Retain Their Shapes.” A professional astronomer studying the same area used Spencer’s data, and Spencer will be acknowledged in her upcoming academic publications on the subject.

Each night on Hawaiʻi Island’s Maunakea summit, the most powerful collection of telescopes in the world captures light from the most distant reaches of our universe. The Maunakea Scholars partnership, the first of its kind in the world, is a lasting commitment to harness this remarkable capacity to provide Hawaiʻi’s aspiring astronomers and STEM students with direct access to the most advanced astronomy resources in the world, right here at home.

Working with graduate student mentors from the University of Hawaiʻi’s Institute for Astronomy, Maunakea Scholar students learn about the available resources and astronomical data analysis to formulate research proposals which are rigorously and competitively reviewed by professional astronomers. Together, we are truly pushing beyond the boundaries of conventional classroom education to provide an authentic hands-on experience available nowhere else on earth.

By pulling together our collective resources, we are giving our brightest young minds a chance to explore the world around us in ways previously limited to the world’s most proven scientists. These learning experiences will undoubtedly jumpstart careers in astronomy and other STEM fields while enabling new discoveries about the universe—by our own Hawaiʻi students using the resources on Maunakea.

Whether in robotics competitions or finding solutions to cleaning the Ala Wai, our next generation is thriving in STEM fields. These real-world opportunities that enable students to explore their potential are key to nurturing their interest and sustaining the explosion of talent in our schools that will inherit and shape the world of tomorrow.

And for the students who will participate in the expanding Maunakea Scholars program, the sky is quite literally no longer the limit.