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Fostering Future Engineers

Clustered around gummy bears, lasers, lenses, and bridge fragments, fifth and sixth graders from across the island dove into the world of science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, at Kaunakakai Elementary School’s first ever Engineering Exploration Expo last Friday. Students explored STEM career paths and discovered hands-on learning through interactive experiments and presentations by the state’s best in the field.


Professional engineer Claire Provan shared building plans for construction of the Kawela Bridge project during the Engineering Exploration Expo at Kaunakakai Elementary on Friday. Photo Credit: Bianca Moragne

Each fall, the Maui Economic Development Board (MEDB) hosts a huge exploration event for middle and high school students at the Air Force’s Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies (AMOS) Conference on Maui, according to Mapu Quitazol, program manager of MEDB’s Women in Technology Project. This year for the first time, the board brought their brightest professionals to Molokai for a fun morning of educational activities that allowed more than 90 students from Kaunakakai, Maunaloa, and Kilohana elementary schools to try their hand in different technologies and be engineers for the day. Board members anticipate this opportunity becoming an annual event for Molokai keiki. 

“I love to have speakers who can do hands-on activities and education outreach,” said Quitazol. “I hope students see through hands-on activities that engineering is fun, not as something boring, or something hard that they cannot achieve.”

Groups of students rotated through five, 30-minute engineering sessions on civil, mechanical, environmental, electrical, and geo technical engineering, and used science to create, problem solve, and learn. Presenters included staff at Bowers and Kubota Consulting, AMOS, and many other local professionals and educators.

During the session, students got a firsthand look at the intricacies involved in large-scale construction projects like the Kawela Bridge. Claire Provan, a professional engineer from Bowers and Kubota Consulting, provided valuable insights into the complexities of the construction process. Through engaging exercises, she guided students on how to configure bridge supply estimates and calculate measurements of bridge parts using tables. Additionally, they learned about reading the calibration of the bridge water, including pH levels, salinity, and total suspended solids, or oil, to maintain clean waters during construction. This hands-on experience may as well gave students a deeper understanding of what is a mixed use building and the multifaceted aspects of such projects.

Jennifer Whitted, the Kaunakakai Elementary Parent Community Networking Coordinator, is a STEM advocate and helped coordinate this expo to bring community members into the school and enhance student education.

“I support any opportunity for kids to experience STEM and get inspired,” said Whitted. “I hope the kids saw something that sparked an interest in them for their future…that there was a connection amongst one of the five sessions where students felt they can do this.”

Students put their knowledge to the test in a fun colored laser experiment involving gummy bear candies. Each student took turns shining colored lasers onto colored gummy bears to see which colors were reflected and absorbed for human eyesight. As part of AMOS, Air Force Research Laboratory personnel presented two separate demonstrations on optics and lasers. The Maui Space Surveillance Complex led by Dr. Jeremy Bos, an electrical engineer, with assistance from physical scientists, Dr. Staci Williams and Dr. Virginia Wright, enlightened students on reflection, absorption, and transmission of light into seeing color.

“My favorite experiment was the lasers because I liked experimenting with the different lasers and colors,” said Kaunakakai student Aaron Kealaiki. “I learned how the light can be absorbed and reflected, what all the colors of light are, and how our eyes see color.”

Using lasers shown through different-shaped lenses, students also investigated how light can be focused or dispersed — the same theory used for corrective eyeglasses. Captain Curtis Peterson and Chief Engineer Skip Williams with the Air Force Maui Optical and Supercomputing Site explained how scientists use refraction and reflection to manipulate light, otherwise known as optics. Eager students performed a lens demonstration activity with optics kits to learn how lenses and mirrors move light.

“The reward of becoming an engineer is helping people and helping to better your local community,” Quitazol said. “I hope this event opened their eyes and gave students a better taste of engineering and sciences.”


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