Picking Up ‘STEM’

Christian Wong is the founder of Hawai‘i Science and Technology Museum. KATIE YOUNG YAMANAKA PHOTO

Hawai‘i Science and Technology Museum has been gaining traction in the STEM community through collaborations like the annual astronaut Ellison Onizuka science day. This year slated for Jan 26.

Having two sons keen on robots, dinosaurs, spaceships and everything science-related prompted Hilo native Christian Wong, a firefighter with 23 years of service, to start Hawai‘i Science and Technology Museum, a nonprofit dedicated to STEM education.

“Whenever we travel, my wife and I always take our boys to places like the California Science Center, Museum of Natural History or Mamiya Science Center at Bishop Museum (on O‘ahu),” explains Wong, HSTM executive director. “I would always think, ‘Why can’t we have a science center on Hawai‘i Island that showcases all the different disciplines like these large museums? Why can’t our Hawai‘i Island kids go see dinosaurs or saber-toothed tigers all the time?’ That’s really where this idea came from, was wanting to have a science center that showcases all the different science fields like these large museums across the country.”

HSTM’s ultimate goal is to establish a full-scale science museum here on Hawai‘i Island.

HSTM supports keiki groups like the BFF Builders Robotics Team.

“There is so much amazing research being conducted here in our community — geology, marine science, astronomy, entomology, archaeology, environmental studies — you name it,” says Wong. “We want to be able to share all that amazing science with the public, especially our young keiki, to inspire them to pursue STEM-related fields as a career.”

Over the past four years, Wong’s vision quickly grew into a second full-time job in the form of a “mobile museum.” While he is working on his long-term vision, Wong, through HSTM, continues to offer all the outreach services you would expect from a large science museum: traveling exhibits, science camps, after school programs, tutoring services, robotics education, and special events like science nights at local schools.

In addition to the programs HSTM hosts, it has also formed strong partnerships with many organizations in the community. One such partnership is a collaboration for Astronaut Ellison Onizuka Science Day, an event that draws hundreds of students from grades 3-12 to University of Hawai‘i at Hilo for STEM workshops and exhibits. This year’s event is slated for 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26, and includes workshops like “Up Close with the Astronaut,” “Fun with Fractals,” “Microscopic Creatures of Hilo Bay” and “The Science of Cooking.”

“The whole science community comes out to participate and share their work with the public in remembrance of Hawai‘i’s first astronaut, Ellison Onizuka, who died tragically in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986,” says Wong.

Students Lia Kuo, Leya Varicatt and Callie Umemoto learn about vortexes and meteorology at a recent science camp. PHOTO COURTESY HSTM

This year, HSTM will host a workshop, “Aerospace Technologies,” which teaches students about the physics of flight and space exploration while experiencing hands-on piloting with drones (unmanned aerial systems) and virtual reality technology. In 2020, HSTM will take charge of organizing all the workshops for the event.
“Ellison was my hero when I was growing up so it makes me very happy to be able to continue his legacy for the next generation,” Wong adds.
HSTM will also use these unmanned aerial systems to support scientific research on Hawai‘i Island. This includes partnerships with the Big Island Invasive Species Committee working on Rapid ‘Ōhi’a Death, the EDvance program at Hawai‘i Community College and Hawai‘i Uncharted on the Westside of the island to conduct critical whale shark research.

“A lot of these programs are based in citizen science so it’s right up our alley and it’s a great way for us to provide research opportunities for our students,” Wong continues.

In addition, HSTM is involved in supporting robotics education in the community, providing assistance to many local competition teams.

“Through robotics, the kids learn so much more than just building a robot. They learn how to problem solve, how to use design thinking, computer coding, teamwork, public speaking … and I see these robotics whiz kids just develop this wonderful confidence about themselves in the academic arena and beyond,” he says.
Wong also makes a great effort to incorporate art into their various programs and science camps, which creates a wondrous and magical experience for the kids, he explains. Hence, HSTM’s focus on STEAM (STEM, plus arts) and its partnership with individuals and community orgs like Leandra Keuma and Circle of Life Art Studio.
They are experiences that keiki seem to remember not as typical learning opportunities but as creative and cool experiences that they come home wanting to tell their parents about.

“It really brings a smile to my face knowing these kids are learning STEM using their hands and natural curiosity and just having a wonderful time while doing it,” says Wong.

He believes that Hawai‘i Island keiki should have the same access to STEM education as children in other parts of the nation, and it appears he is not alone in this sentiment as his vision for the HSTM took flight much faster than he anticipated.

“The need for STEM education on our island is huge,” Wong explains. “If you look at the DOE testing scores on their STRIVE HI site, many of our schools are really falling short. But this is a problem that needs to be solved as a community. We can’t just dump it on the teachers and expect them to tackle such a large and complex issue alone. It takes time and investment on the part of parents, our political leaders, and our business community. We all have to work together to get our kids ready for the incredible challenges their generation is going to face. We can accomplish amazing things when we work together.”

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