Planting the Seeds for Problem Solving
On the Big Island, the Hawaii Ulu Cooperative is working to revive a traditional Hawaiian growing system, known as an agroforest, which uses canopy, understory and groundcover layers to yield crops, like ulu, mamaki and awapuhi. Now, LHES Career and Technical Education (CTE) students are engaging in a similar long-term project on a plot of land behind their classroom. Their project caught the attention of community organizations and a major international technology company.
Learning by doing
After visiting the Hawaii Ulu Cooperative, LHES science teacher M. Kapua Weinhouse felt that an agroforest would be a worthwhile undertaking for her CTE students because it integrates sustainability, farming techniques, culture and technology. However, instead of telling her students to work on an agroforest plan, she decided she would see what ideas the class would develop on their own, engaging them in project-based learning.
In project-based learning, also known as place-based or problem-based learning, students start with a question or real-life “problem” that is relevant to them or their community. They then learn more about the situation and apply facts and critical reasoning to develop solutions. “Instead of teaching in a vacuum in a classroom about something that is going on in the mainland, you teach what’s relevant to Hawaii,” explained Weinhouse.
Starting with a question to discover solutions
Weinhouse challenged her students to find ways to stabilize Lanai’s economy and food supply, things that have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. She asked her students, “How can we create a way to make Lanai a sustainable and self-sufficient community?” After Weinhouse told students they would be provided with a plot of land on campus and introduced them to different resources, they brainstormed concepts and collaborated virtually using a Google Jamboard.
Ultimately, the students decided that the plot of land would lend itself well to an agroforest, like the system Weinhouse saw on the Big Island. In the course of their research, the students learned that agroforestry would work well given Lanai’s unique and diverse ecosystems.
Weinhouse was amazed and surprised that out of so many options, the students managed to land on an agroforest. “Not, only did they get there, they even went beyond what I thought they could do, examining details like soil, water and fencing,” explained Weinhouse.
National recognition and local involvement
The agroforest project received national attention and won an honorable mention award in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Challenge, an annual, nationwide competition that challenges public school students in grades 6-12 to use STEM skills to address real-world change in their communities.
The project will take years to complete and involve different community experts, including Sensei Ag, local agriculture experts and Hawaiian studies kumu. This year, students will work on the project’s design, using computer design tools like SketchUp and input from stake holders and community members. In the second year, students will start planting the canopy, managing crops, and building a hydroponics facility. By the third year, students will finish planting in the understory and will start to incorporate drones, ArcGIS, coding, AI, and irrigation into the project.
Weinhouse is pleased to see her students’ progress and hopes that the project can someday produce food for the community, inspire careers in agriculture and spark thought-provoking conversations in the community about sustainability, culture and production.