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July 27, 2022

LHES Students Shoot for the Stars to Become Maunakea Scholars

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Lanai High and Elementary School’s Ms. Weinhouse was first introduced to the Maunakea Scholars program in 2018 when she was a middle school teacher attending a STEM conference. The program, which aims to introduce Hawaii’s aspiring young astronomers to the observatory community, left an indelible impression on Ms. Weinhouse. It was something she hoped to bring to LHES one day, given that the program focuses on high school students that aren’t normally exposed to programs of this nature, such as those located in rural communities.

Fast forward four years later and that opportunity finally came during the 2021-2022 school year. Now a chemistry teacher at LHES, Ms. Weinhouse reconnected with Mary Beth Laychak, Maunakea Scholars’ outreach and development manager, who led the Maunakea Scholars presentation at the STEM conference. “This has been four years in the making,” said Ms. Weinhouse. “I finally had a high school class and high school students. And the school year was somewhat normal [post-Covid] to finally be able to do this.”

Mary Beth and Alan Tokunaga, a veteran University of Hawaii astronomer with ties to Lanai, came to visit Ms. Weinhouse’s chemistry class to introduce the students to the Maunakea Scholars program. Over the course of the following months, Mary Beth and Alan mentored Ms. Weinhouse’s students who were interested in applying for the program, which entailed submitting a professional-style proposal on a self-selected research project that could be conducted at an observatory.

Students from high schools across the state submitted research proposals which were reviewed by a committee made up of professional astronomers. Three of Ms. Weinhouse’s students were selected based on their proposals’ technical viability, creativity and science impact. Callie Hart, Makenzie Lamay-Aki and Souina Seiuli make up the inaugural cohort of Maunakea Scholars from LHES and will have time to use world-class telescopes on Maunakea and Haleakala to conduct their research projects.

“It’s really a gift because I didn’t do this kind of work until I was in college,” said Ms. Weinhouse, impressed by her students’ work and commitment. “To ask [these students] to come up with a scientific proposal is a really hard thing to do. It’s hard even for college students to grasp what that entails.”

We caught up with Lanai’s Maunakea Scholars to learn more about their research topics and what they learned going through the proposal process. (Responses have been edited for length and conciseness.)

Callie Hart
Callie Hart
Telescope: Las Cumbres Observatory
Proposal: “Comparing and Contrasting Stellar Classifications”

What will you be researching and why did you choose that topic?
I knew I wanted to research stars because I’ve always loved looking at the stars, especially here on Lanai where we have such a nice clear sky. I want to find out what makes stars different even if they are in the same stellar classification group.

How did it feel to learn you were selected as a Maunakea Scholar?
It felt super good because we worked so hard on our proposals and slides. It felt good that the work paid off and I have this amazing opportunity that I get to use.

What takeaways do you have going through this program?
It was cool to be able to do this on my own. It was super helpful to have Ms. Weinhouse and Auntie Mary Beth give us suggestions along the way, but it was nice to do something that I’m interested in and set it up the way I would like it to be.

Makenzie Lamay-Aki
Makenzie Lamay-Aki
Telescope: W. M. Keck Observatory
Proposal: “Companion Stars Over Time”

What will you be researching and why did you choose that topic?
I will be studying binary stars and white dwarfs. A white dwarf star pulls energy from a binary star which leads to a supernova, when the star dies and explodes. I want to see if there is a point in time where the white dwarf star starts to pull energy quicker.

How did it feel to learn you were selected as a Maunakea Scholar?
I had a hard time coming up with my proposal and felt it wasn’t the best work I could do. So, I wasn’t expecting to be rewarded. When they put my name on the screen, I was surprised and happy. It felt rewarding because I felt unaccomplished this school year, so this gave me another jump of hope.

What takeaways do you have going through this program?
My biggest takeaway is not everything has to be perfect to be worthy of something like an award. I had a hard time feeling like my proposal was complete without making it perfect because I’m a perfectionist when it comes to my schoolwork.

Souina Seiuli
Souina Seiuli
Telescope: NASA Infrared Telescope Facility
Proposal: “Rings of Saturn and Neptune”

What will you be researching and why did you choose that topic?
My project is about the difference between Saturn’s rings and Neptune’s rings. I have always been interested in Saturn because it’s a pretty planet and was curious why the rings are visible. When I started doing research, I found out that Neptune has rings, but wanted to know why Neptune’s rings are not as visible.

How did it feel to learn you were selected as a Maunakea Scholar?
I didn’t think I was going to win because a lot of the students in our class are very smart as well. I went to the award ceremony to support them. But when they called my name first, I was very confused.

What takeaways do you have going through this program?
Knowing you could be one of the selected, even if you don’t think you will be. It’s just a matter of picking something that interests you, putting the work into it and maybe it can get you somewhere.

 
Ms. Weinhouse has high hopes that more students, including those outside of her classroom, will want to submit research proposals for a chance to be selected for future Maunakea Scholars cohorts. “My hope is that younger students will want to look forward to an opportunity like this,” she said.

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