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KS Hawai’i instructor Joel Truesdell (third from left) and his students reforest an area just outside the campus gates.

Teaching Chemistry Through Culture

Aug. 1, 2013

Contributed by Shaundor Chillingworth

Joel Truesdell has been a long-time educator with Kamehameha Schools.

He currently serves as a college-prep chemistry teacher at the Kamehameha Schools Hawai‘i campus. In his nearly three decades of experience working with students of Hawaiian ancestry, he has become very ma‘a (familiar) with the culture, and always incorporated the culture into his classroom.

But this past school year, he was able to do things a little differently and implement a new project which has both students and educators excited by the possibilities.

Ma ka hana ka ‘ike; or learning by doing, is a fundamental principle of Hawaiian education. It’s with that in mind that Truesdell initiated a project to reforest a .85-mile long tract of forest just outside of the campus gates.

About one-fifth of the forest was planted with koa this past year and the plans are to finish the canopy and understory by the 2017-18 school year. By blending science and native knowledge, Truesdell was able to ignite a spark within his students where they could see the scientific nature of their ancestors.

“If they are taught the culture first, then they have a connection and can get excited,” Truesdell said. “I was teaching the chemistry first, then the culture the second; so I reversed it this year. If you make it relevant, they will do the inquiry and find it.”

Truesdell credits the arrival of new campus leadership in po‘o kula (head of school) Dr. Holoua Stender and po‘o kumu o ke kula ki‘eki‘e (high school prinicipal) Lehua Veincent for seeing and believing in the value of this approach and the long-term benefits to the community as a whole.

The vision for this project and for the students he’s working with is to remove all of the invasive species in the surrounding campus area and develop an accessible native forest for students and teachers to use as an outdoor classroom.

Also, by working with the ‘Äina-Based Education department (ABED) at Kamehameha Schools, they intend on extending the opportunity to use the forest to neighboring public Department of Education schools to help start projects on their own or even adopt and have kuleana for a part of this forest.

From the start, many students were on board with the project. Honors chemistry student, CiarraLynn Parinas, KSH’15 said, “At the very beginning, we found out that we were going to be planting koa trees, which was one of the main resources that our ancestors used. And it kind of hit me right there…our ancestors were scientists.

“It’s not just a basic science. Chemistry does involve life, and that life was every day for our ancestors. This koa tree project gave me a chance to dive in and connect personally with what they did and how they did it.”

The chemistry is taught through a Hawaiian and environmental point of view. At the beginning of the year, the students learn the growing conditions for the canopy tree in a Hawaiian forest, acacia koa. Then, students are given koa seedlings to raise for three months.

“We had to go through different labs, and we had to research acidity to find out what is the right acidity for koa trees to grow in,” Parinas shared.

At the end of the three months, students figured out how to mix cinder and soil to maintain the proper drainage and then planted those seedlings into the forest. Throughout the year, students checked on the plants for rainfall, measuring the pH and fertility of the soil if fertilizer was needed. They checked for the ions in the soil that are common in fertilizer. They’re also figuring out how to culture the right kind of bacteria needed for the soil, so it closer matches that in places like Volcano, where reforestation efforts have been underway for years.

“We would like to have the canopy, the understory, the native birds to return, to the point of where the kids, when they go out there, they will have not only taken part in reforestation, they were able to go out there and experience it; right in the backyard,” Truesdell said.

“By the time our students graduate, they will have learned chemistry from an environmental point of view and they would have participated in the reforestation of a native forest.”

In addition to the reforestation project, Truesdell incorporated other plants common to Hawaiians. To study thermodynamics, he had students replace the traditionally used peanut, with kukui nut, where they were able to calculate the calorie count by burning and performing the same kind of experiment normally done on a peanut. And the students quickly realized, with a little Hawaiian salt, they had made their own little inamona snack. It was another connection made and students are more likely to work through the math and calculations, because of the connection.

“This was a great experience for us cause it’s something that will last a lifetime,” said chemistry student Micah Kanehailua, KSH’15. “We have senior legacies for our students and one day someone’s senior legacy project is going to be to come back and teach about the native forest they helped plant during chemistry class. It’s something we’ll leave as a legacy for future generations.”

For his work, this past school year, Truesdell was recognized as a National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) 2013 Shell Science Teaching Award finalist and a NSTA 2013 SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment Outstanding Environmental Educator of the Year.

“Sometimes we don’t look at chemistry beyond just the four wall classroom,” said Veincent, po‘o kula o ke kula ki‘eki‘e. “What (Truesdell) has done is take the concepts and skills beyond the four wall classroom and apply them in something that is very tied to the experiences of some of our students.”

“The culture is the foundation of our people, and not just the pageantry pieces. When I get out of my car and I feel the wind, that’s part of our culture. When I can’t see Mauna Kea in its clarity, that’s part of our culture. When I see a lauhala leaf and how it bends, that’s part of our culture. And if we can tie in any kind of scientific inquiry to why it happens that way, that’s what makes our academia that much more rich,” shared Veincent.

“How do we take it to a place that we can start observing and make our students observe, cause they pass ‘ōhi‘a trees, they pass lauhala trees and they don’t recognize the wind that blows through their campus. And if we can bring that level of awareness through our science, through our other disciplines, that’s profound and that’s powerful.”

In May, Mr. Truesdell hosted a gathering of Hawai‘i island science teachers in an effort to create an organization and network that could work with one another and leverage resources.

It was a chance to show how the shift in philosophy in teaching the culture first has really helped with understanding and connections to the work and showcase the work his students had done. Truesdell also plans additional opportunities to help teachers discover new ways to engage with their students, including bringing a pair of science teachers from the University of Wisconsin– Stevens Point to do a presentation entitled “Fun with Science” next May.

If science teachers on Hawai‘i island would be interested in getting involved with this project or other opportunities to collaborate, they can contact Truesdell at

Part of the hope for this project is to establish a native forest within a short walk from campus classrooms.

Truesdell discusses the koa project with student CiarraLynn Parinas, KSH’15.

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