Jennifer Ainoa

Students gain resources to compete in science fair

Molokai is known as the “most” Hawaiian island because of its unspoiled natural beauty, authentic culture, and resistance to embrace the commercial tourism industry. In fact, there is so little automobile traffic that there is not a single traffic light on the island. The absence of mainland tourists and luxury resorts is a benefit of living on Molokai, but as a result, the island also lacks sufficient employment opportunities for adults and education resources for its students.

This is a reality that Jennifer Ainoa’s seventh-grade students at Molokai Middle School face every day when learning the basics of scientific inquiry. In order to give her students access to the resources necessary to make them successful, Ainoa took the initiative and developed a common sense proposal for a NEA Foundation Student Achievement Grant.

“Bridging basic literacy gaps, ensuring fair and equitable access to technology, and providing strong adult support for every student, in the face of many parents themselves not being highly literate or familiar with scientific inquiry, has been problematic for the school,” she said.

Each year, all students are required to participate in a science fair project and the best projects, as determined by judges at the school-level, travel to Maui for the county-level competition. The NEA Foundation funding provided Ainoa’s students the technology, the experience, and the money in order to prepare, attend, and compete with their peers from the larger Hawaiian communities at the science fair. “The premise behind this grant was to tap into resources on the island and purchase computers and printers in order for the students to have a chance to do high quality science at a level comparable to students elsewhere,” she said.

As soon as the grant was funded, Ainoa and her students purchased three Dell desktop computers, a printer, and other materials to access the internet. The students benefited immediately and used the new computers to conduct research and complete classroom work. Ainoa also used the grant for experiential field trips to spark curiosity and open students’ eyes to possible topics for their projects.

The students visited Wichamn Farm, a local coffee plantation, to learn about how coffee was planted, harvested, and used in industry. They also visited Pala’au National Forest where they learned about the local ecosystem and collected seeds from the native Hawaiian Koa tree to help prevent the plant from extinction.

These hands-on learning activities broadened the students’ knowledge and provided inspiration for their projects. One student, after learning about the unique qualities of the coffee plants grown on Molokai, chose a science project measuring the pH of local soil.The first measurable goal of the project was for 95 percent of the seventh graders to successfully conduct an independent science fair experiment. Using the new resources, 77 of the 79 students successfully completed their projects.

Even though the proposal primarily benefited the seventh-graders, it was the experience of an eight-grade female student that demonstrated the unexpected impact this grant had on the school. Once the computers were up and running, this student used the opportunity to work after school on her science project. In an effort to repeat the experiments of the father of genetics, Gergor Mendel, she studied and planted sweet peas.

While it lacks corporate hotel chains, several agricultural corporations have research facilities on Molokai and local geneticists serve as judges for the school-level science fair. This budding scientist caught the eye of the judges. “They fell in love with this young lady and were stunned at the quality of her science,” said Ainoa.

Because of the quality of their work, this student and 11 of her peers were selected to attend the competition in Maui. Ainoa used the grant funds to allow all of these students to attend the competition. And the students performed well. Two of the students were given special recognition for their work, accomplishing another of Ainoa’s goals for her students. “While this specific student did not earn any awards at the Maui County competition, she blossomed with pride and was thrilled with the opportunity to travel off-island,” said Ainoa.

Through what the students were able to accomplish by using these few new resources, Ainoa proved how access and equity can impact student learning, especially for students in underprivileged communities. The new computers will continue to be a lasting resource for the Molokai Middle School, but the experiences, support, and learning Ainoa provided for her students through this project is what will have an enduring impact on the whole community.