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This video essay highlights the KS Maui haumāna who have earned accolades for a project utilizing lāʻau ʻōiwi Hawaiʻi in a new way to aid toxic cleanup in places like fire-ravaged Lahaina.

KS Maui haumāna earn top honors for native plant project aimed at aiding Lahaina cleanup

May 2, 2024

The crisis in Lahaina created a sense of urgency during the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement’s 22nd Annual Convention. Held just three months after the devasting wildfires, funding from KS Kaiāulu and Kanaeokana helped to not only shift the host location from Waikīkī to Maui, it also supported the first day of programming.
The Kākoʻo Maui convention bore a great deal of hua. One of them being an award-winning project developed by two Kamehameha Schools Maui haumāna utilizing lāʻau ʻōiwi Hawaiʻi to aid toxic cleanup in places like fire-ravaged Lahaina. It’s a promising innovation that KS may well end up using on its ʻĀina Pauahi in west Maui and elsewhere.

Planting a Creative Seed

KS Maui science kumu David Takahama attended the CNHA convention and listened intently during a panel presentation about the need to improve bioremediation to lessen the ecological damage in the burn zones of Lahaina. Bioremediation uses natural or organic materials to break down pollutants. 

He was intrigued and instantly thought of his son Bennett and his AP Biology partner Kadence Merritt both KS Maui seniors, who were in the early stages of work on another senior capstone project.

“This work seemed super important. The panelists were passionate, and it fits directly into what we as a school and as Native Hawaiians believe in, and it was something these students would relate to really, really well,” Takahama said.

David texted his son mid-conference and asked if he and Kadence might consider a project switch. Knowing this could help Lahaina and elsewhere, the two haumāna agreed without hesitation and were linked up with the CHNA panelists who became their mentors.

A Project Begins

After meeting with the hui of bioremediation experts led by U.H. Hilo researcher Hannah Hartmann, Merritt and Takahama quickly focused their work on how to build a better silt sock. Also known as biosocks, these large, malleable sausage-looking contraptions are typically stuffed with woodchips, soil and biochar, an organic charcoal-like substance. Inexpensive and effective, biosocks do an impressive job at soaking up and dissolving pollutants from runoff before they reach storm drains that empty into the ocean.

The two haumāna decided to explore whether inserting live native plants into a biosock would improve their performance. They came up with a prototype using pili grass, the all-purpose lāʻau ʻōiwi Hawaiʻi. 

“We wanted to open up a new possibility of how they can be used combining bioremediation and bioremediation from live plants to create a better product and a better way to clean up toxic waste,” Takahama said.

Up close view of the prototype biosock developed by KS Maui haumāna using pili grass.

Using data collection and applying full scientific rigor learned in class, they conducted tests on their pili grass prototype in comparison to a traditional biosock. After several weeks, they successfully proved the pili prototype absorbed more water than a traditional one. This result is significant because soaking up more water opens the very real possibility that these modified biosocks could absorb and naturally break down more pollutants, too.

Malia Panglao, the KS Maui AP biology kumu oversaw the work and was impressed with the countless hours the two put in. “It just makes me feel incredibly proud of the project and that they did something so relevant to what’s going on right now and what the community’s needs are.”

The hard work and incredible results once again proved true the ʻōlelo noʻeau: “Ua lehulehu a manomano ka ʻikena a ka Hawaiʻi” – Great and numerous is the knowledge of the Hawaiians.

Project Earns Accolades

Besides being a senior capstone school project, Merritt and Takahama also had their sights set on entering their work into the Maui County Regional Science and Engineering Fair. Preparation for that required many more hours building displays, compiling data and fine-tuning speeches to explain their project and impressive results to the fair’s judges.

The hoʻokūkū took place in late February. Their project with a long name: ‘Evaluating Native Hawaiian Plant Species’ Contribution to Post-fire Silt Sock Bioremediation in Lahaina’, earned awards in several categories, including the top overall project, earning them an automatic berth into the International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles. Kumu Panglao describes the international fair as the ‘Olympics of Science Fairs’.

KS Maui seniors Kadence Merritt and Bennett Takahama took home top honors in the Maui County Regional Science and Engineering Fair, held in Feb. 2024. Photo courtesy of Mark Hymas.

Facing Forward, Looking Back

As the haumāna prepare for their L.A. huakaʻi, they’ve also been able to take a moment to reflect on not only their success but also their role in absorbing ʻike kūpuna and applying that wisdom to help solve modern problems.

“We found it very significant to use these Native Hawaiian plants because we know our ancestors found a wide variety of uses for these plants. So we wanted to also use these plants in innovative ways just like our kūpuna,” Merritt voiced.

“I definitely think my ancestors would be proud of what we’re doing. Especially one of my grandparents. She died when I was young and I think she would be very stoked to see me doing something with Hawaiian culture, especially with plants and improving our lāhui with them,” Takahama remarked.

Bennett’s dad beamed with pride when he saw his keiki kāne make this ancestral connection to his tūtū.

“It's truly remarkable to see some of what my mother was inside of him, the things that she believed in, the things that she was passionate about. She was always passionate about plants, the environment and Hawaiian culture. She had kind of a late awakening of embracing Hawaiian culture, taking classes, that kind of thing. But I mean, to see those qualities embraced by him, I think is super special,” David Takahama expressed.

KS Maui AP Biology kumu Malia Panglao (far left) and science lab kumu David Takahama (far right), provided counsel and support as haumāna Kadence Merritt and Bennett Takahama developed their prototype and readied for science fair competitions.

The haumāna head to the international fair in May, where many more will see the incredible possibilities they’ve unlocked. They’ve also begun testing other nā lāʻau ʻōiwi such as milo and naupaka to see if they attain similar or better results than their pili grass prototype.

“Our intention is to help the people and the ʻāina of Lahaina and we hope our research will be implemented in Lahaina and throughout the world,” Merritt said.

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