The sound of 40 or so 5th graders yelling in unison filled the bus as it approached the entrance to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The students from Keaau Elementary were answering a question from their teacher, Brynn Alcain, about the kind of forest they were entering.
This bus was heading to a one-of-a-kind event — the National Geographic BioBlitz, May 15-16. The gathering of citizen scientists to inventory native flora and fauna in the natural world has been hosted at U.S. national parks for the past nine years. This year, Hawaii’s unique environment at Kilauea was the star.
At the entrance, Park Ranger Jane joined the tour and guided the bus driver down to “Research Road,” which navigates a stretch of the park’s eastern forest. Here, the students would cycle through three “natural labs” among the trees — to observe birds, plants, and bugs.
Students were reminded about the simple yet effective ways to be a scientist — use your senses, and use language to describe what your senses are experiencing.
Culture, science and technology
The students chanted an oli to Kilauea before entering her domain, then they moved through the observations, guided by researchers from the University of Hawaii and National Park Service who volunteered for the event.
“Describe what you see. Describe what you hear,” Alcain said.
The sound of apapane song filled the air. Apapane are one of the most common native birds in Hawaiian forests. Tools were deployed: Binoculars to spot the birds, worksheets to record the observations, iPads to shoot photos and video (which were later uploaded to the iNaturalist app to contribute to a global record of flora and fauna).
Next, a plant biologist challenged the students to see how many different kinds of plants they could observe. “It’s not just the trees, look down. There are grasses, berries, moss, ferns,” she said. “How will you describe them? Look at the size, shape, color. What about smell? What about touch, and texture?”
The students whipped out the swivel magnifying glasses handed out earlier by the volunteers and trained in on the scalloped edges of olelo leaves. The digital camera snapshot sound fired on their devices. Pencils flew across worksheets.
For sheer delight factor, the bugs cycle won. Entomologist Tracy Johnson was peppered with questions as soon as the kids arrived — they really wanted to see a nananana makakii, or happy-face spider.
“Well, maybe we will. They like to hang out under these leaves,” Johnson said as he gently lifted the green undersides of a nearby branch.
The students fanned around him as he deployed a white canvas to easily spot bugs that crawl along the forest floor. He showed them how to use a simple sucking device to gather bugs into a beaker for closer observation. Students referenced diagrams of different arthropods to identify them — with the signature “oohs” and “aahs” that only multi-legged creatures can elicit.
And the happy-face spider? On that day, he remained out of sight.
After wrapping up their observations in the forest, the tour brought the Keaau El expedition to the park’s Visitors Center for the Biodiversity and Cultural Festival. As live Hawaiian music played, the students traveled among dozens of information booths with canvas bags to learn about the island’s environment, sustainable land management, and culture — and to collect “stamps.” Collect at least three stamps, and students would earn an honorary degree from the festival’s Biodiversity University. Some of the stops (see video, above):
- The Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization shared ways to plant “fire-wise” gardens that are less susceptible to fire promotion — valuable tips for these kids from Puna who’ve witnessed the fires sparked by the nearby lava flow.
- The Big Island Invasive Species Committee gave students a chance to shoot non-native plants such as wax myrtle, rubber vine, pampas grass and cotoneaster with a toy gun while learning about their efforts to protect the island’s delicate ecosystem.
- Pounding taro into paiai and poi. As the students left with a few bags of their fresh makings, it was a perfect segue to lunch and the end of the tour.
The educators at Keaau Elementary would like to send a special mahalo to Jim Gale, retired National Park Service ranger, who not only volunteered for the BioBlitz but conducted outreach with area schools and provided curricular materials for the event — those are available here on the National Park Service site.
Students listen to instructions on how to pound paiai and poi during the Biodiversity University.