When is a college course considered paradise? When part of it is in Hawaiʻi. Midway through the Spring 2019 semester 16 Penn State students from four campuses—Altoona, DuBois, Schuylkill, and University Park—began an environmental studies class with Penn State Altoona’s Carolyn Mahan, professor of biology and environmental studies, and Lisa Emili, associate professor of physical geography and environmental studies and Sustainability Coordinator. Through classroom discussion, readings, and Zoom presentations with Hawaiʻian experts, the students were introduced to the culture, environment, and geology of Hawaiʻi. Once the semester was over, the students continued their work with an intense 12 days of study in the Hawaiian Islands.
Hawaiʻi was not the original destination imagined for the course: Mahan had wanted to take her biology students to study evolution in the Galapagos Islands, she says, but it was prohibitively expensive. A conversation she had with Jim Boone, the entomology collections manager at Bishop Museum in Hawaiʻi and a former colleague, changed everything. “We started to discuss the possibility of having a field course in Hawaiʻi,” Boone says, “involving the Bishop Museum as a proof-of-concept model for future field courses.”
The idea appealed to Mahan for a number of reasons. “Jim said that most people don’t know that Hawaiʻi is more significant evolutionarily in terms of species diversity than the Galapagos.” Distance from other places was the biggest contributor to the diversity, she says. “The Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated in the world, the farthest from any land. Animals get there, they don’t, or can’t, leave, and then they diversify.”
With the destination set, Mahan traveled to Hawaiʻi in the spring of 2018, and returned with Emili in the summer of 2018, to develop subject areas and tours. “We curated this course,” Emili says. “Carolyn formed relationships with many of the experts” in fields as diverse as entomology, astronomy, malacology, and, of course, volcanology. Those experts participated in the class first by Zoom and then in person.
The time spent in the Altoona classroom with readings and discussions prepared the students well. “When the students arrived in Hawaiʻi, we had a higher level of questions and a higher level of engagement in the field component,” Emili notes. “We had introduced everyone to these ideas and connected with the docents before we went.” Not only were the students more informed about what they would see in Hawaiʻi, they were also comfortable with their classmates despite the different campus origins. In Altoona “we started the nascent group cohesion and in Hawaiʻi we built on that.”
From the first day of class on the island of Oahu, the students were immersed in learning about the history, heritage, and culture of the islands. Marques Marzan, cultural advisor at the Bishop Museum, led a tour that included a visit to meaningful cultural sites including the Kūkaniloko Birthstones, considered a sacred place where Hawaiʻian royals would give birth. “The opportunity to share Hawaiian culture, history, and to expose the students from Penn State to significant cultural sites on O‘ahu was indeed a pleasure,” Marzan says. “Everyone was extremely respectful and engaged in our enculturation day.”
Two Hawaiʻian cultural practices resonated deeply with the students, professors, and guide. In the first instance the group worked on a project. “We each crafted a traditional bracelet,” Emili says, “and then we bound all our bracelets together into a lei,” which they then presented as an offering at the Kamehameha family tomb at Mauna ‘Ala, the Royal Mausoleum State Monument, where Hawaiʻian royalty are buried. Marzan says that presentation “to our chiefly resting place of Mauna ‘Ala was a major highlight to witness and experience.”
The other practice, chanting before entering a space, has a long history in Hawaiʻian culture and many of the students mentioned its effect in their post-class reflection papers. Taylor Stoudnour wrote: “The chanting takes a moment to ask for permission to enter and use a space from the land, gods, spirits, or anything that someone feels is significant in the space. This was so impactful because it shows a real respect and connection to the land, animals, and spirits around you. Then we took the time to listen . . . for a response (like wind or sounds of the birds). . . . We treated the space as a living thing.”
Exploring the impressive, extensive collections at the Bishop Museum—including the largest collections of Pacific insects and Pacific plants in the world—filled two days. Students heard from collections managers Molly Hagemann (vertebrate zoology), Jim Boone (entomology), Barbara Kennedy (botany), Alice Christophe (ethnology), and malacology researcher Norine Yeung and Dr. Ken Hayes, invertebrate molecular biologist. Boone gave the students a good review: “The staff here at Bishop Museum that were involved in the Penn State Altoona field course really enjoyed working with the all the students and thought that everyone was very enthusiastic and energetic.”
The work Emili and Mahan had done cultivating relationships with the experts while preparing for the class paid off in a once-in-a-lifetime experience: All of the collections “had extremely rare items,” says Emili. “Not all of the exhibits are open to the public. Some things are just so delicate they can’t be on display but we saw them. I feel like we had a behind-the-scenes all-access pass.”
Many of the cultural lessons brought environmental issues into the picture as well. Student Caitlin Minnick appreciated the feather collection at the Bishop Museum, both how and why it came into existence. She wrote about how “the royal family, ruling chiefs, and high priests . . . were believed to hold a lot of mana or authority. In order to display their mana to the people, they often wore special garments . . . made of feathers of the native honeycreepers,” birds that were caught with “a long pole with flowers and sticky sap on top of it to lure the birds in and hold them there as they removed a few feathers.” What impressed Minnick most was “they respected the animals enough to understand their role and only take a few feathers when they could have taken the whole bird and collected more feathers for feather work faster.”
In addition to scholarly pursuits, the class had a service component: the students spent an afternoon helping to restore an ancient Hawaiʻian fishpond, which student Chris Mesler said was “one of my favorite things. Many of these fishponds are sacred areas that the Hawaiian people used to rely on when it was too difficult to fish at sea. Today many of these ponds have been covered by houses or taken over by invasive species like the mangrove tree.” It was not an easy project: “It was a hot day and some of the rocks we moved were huge, taking four to five people to move.” Mesler appreciates both the historical and environmental aspects of what they were doing: “The sad part . . . is that even though the land is protected now by the owners, if they were to sell it, everything completed could be built over and lost. Just knowing that even the small amount of work . . . [we] put in was a huge benefit for the restoration and preservation of the pond [and that] could be lost made me angry. But destroying something that is part of the people and their history is downright awful.”
The entire trip wasn’t about work, though. While on Oahu, the students participated in an authentic luau hosted by the Hawaiʻi chapter of the Penn State Alumni Association. “We had some traditional Hawaiian food and desserts, along with great conversation,” says chapter representative Adrienne Stofko. “After dinner we joined in on one of the best hula lessons I have ever attended. Each student and chapter board member in attendance participated and had a smile on their face as they went through the dance. It was evident that the students were so engaged in the course and wonderful representatives of the university. Interacting with the students in that setting was a highlight for our chapter.”
Students were encouraged to take advantage of the beauty of Oahu and hike Diamond Head, visit Pearl Harbor or Waikiki Beach, learn to surf or snorkel. For a hike to Ka’ena Point Natural Area Reserve the group was joined by Penn State alumnus Ken Kupchak (’65 Meteo) and his wife Patty. “We had a great time,” Kupchak says. “They were attentive and eager to learn the secrets of what makes Hawaiʻi special. While we barely scratched the surface, they were treated to a seal pupping, a whale sighting and an albatross or three, along with a sense of geologic age, weathering and the happenstance of being the most isolated high island in the world, our tiny blue dot in space.”
For the second week of class, the group moved to the Big Island. A tour of the Hakalau National Wildlife Refuge inspired Mindy Spence to write about Hawaiʻi’s changing climate: “Warming in the oceans around Hawaiʻi has damaged coral reefs. Ecosystems on land are also experiencing impacts from a warming climate. Many native plant species could lose ground to invasive species better adapted to the changing climate. . . . At Hakalau NWR wildlife biologist Steve Kendell discussed how climate change and invasive species are impacting native birds and trees like the Ohia and Koa. Sixty or more species of honeycreepers were known to exist; now all but 18 of them are extinct. The major threats to the honeycreepers are diseases from invasive mosquitos and loss of habitat due to climate change and invasive species.”
On a hike in Volcanoes National Park, Molly McHale came to realize that Hollywood doesn’t always portray things as they really are. “On a trail that went around the rim of and into the caldera of Kilauea on the Big Island . . . the caldera was much larger than I ever expected,” she wrote. “In many Hollywood adventure movies the hero is seen standing on the distinct rim of a volcano fighting with the bad guys and saving the girl from the lava. Hollywood depicts these craters as only a few meters in diameter, enough for the hero and foe to talk. In reality, the caldera had to have been more than four square miles, definitely not close enough to talk to the person on the opposite rim.”
Jordan Wolfkill had a more significant revelation: “From a biological and conservation stance, I could not believe the number of invasive species in Hawaiʻi. I knew that introducing invasive species could be detrimental to the existing ecosystem, but I never realized how much damage could be done by a single species. Before when professors would refer to Hawaiʻi as the extinction capital of the world, I would just kind of agree but I never truly grasped the scale at which these extinction events were occurring. Feral pigs and other invasive species such as the endemic honeycreepers who depend on these plants in order to survive and reproduce. In addition, it was devastating to learn about the ever-rising mosquito line that is creeping slowly to higher and higher altitudes with global climate change. To make matters worse, pigs are creating more problems by creating small stagnant water pools, a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes.”
The students did their course work, participated in the events, and learned more than they expected to. “I heard repeatedly throughout the class ‘I love learning this way. I’m learning so much,’” Emili says. But there was another course element the students might not have even been aware of but was always a part of the professors’ plan: “It’s not just about academic skills, it was also about our students seeing experts in the field doing their jobs,” Emili pointed out. “Not only did we meet with a diverse group of professionals but they were modeling their jobs.”
At least one student, however, did connect his future career to the trip. Brandon Maruna commented in his paper “how awesome it is that the island had wind turbines. We hiked to a Heiau [temple] and got to the edge of the mountain that it was on and, from the lookout, I could see at least half a dozen wind turbines. I want to pursue a career in wind energy and it just made me elated to see turbines on Oahu and on Hawaiʻi.”
Mahan and Emili both witnessed some unanticipated moments with their students. Dinner conversations, Mahan says, “were some of the best times. We talked about anything, it could be Brexit or GMOs.” And while some had never traveled very far outside Altoona, a number of them expressed an interest in traveling the world.
After a class in paradise, what’s next? For the students it’s more course work and a new way of looking at their lives. For the professors, it’s the opportunity to do it again—the course is being offered in 2021.
–Therese Boyd, ’79