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Partner Highlight: The Power of HI-Nano, 'Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo, Hawai'i

Frank Kusiak

Coauthored by: Ahia Dye from 'Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai'i

If you ever find yourself on Hawai'i, aka The Big Island, make your way to Hilo and the beautiful and engaging 'Imiloa Astronomy Center.

'Imiloa is the premier learning center to explore the culture and science of Mauna Kea, whose peak houses the world's most extensive array of telescopes. NISE Net was very excited when they decided to take on NanoDays. With the combination of their dedicated staff and NISE Net's NanoDays Kits, it is now a place where NanoKits deepen one's connection to Hawai'i.

If you do nano outreach, you've probably experienced the following: the NanoDays Kit provides the science served up on a platter, but sometimes it's just really difficult to get visitors to connect with the content.  Presenting nano without any context is difficult.  We may unintentionally localize nano science, or any science content, to convey an idea by connecting it to a local phenomena. 'Imiloa is taking it a step further by presenting STEM content through Hawaiian cultural connections and common local experiences. They are creating an array of nano activities with these underlying principles: community-relevancy and fun.  They call the series of activities "HI-Nano."

The name for the NanoKits came about serendipitously. At the launch of the first modified kit, "Moani Ke Ala," Hawaiian for 'wind-borne fragrances' (a lesson that uses Scented Balloons), staff took patrons to a famous grove of Lauhala, or Pandanus trees in the natural setting of the center. Upon entering the Lauhala grove, they could immediately smell the tree’s intoxicatingly beautiful Hinano flower.  In Hawai'i, perfuming and adorning one's natural features with the scents from flowers and lei are often used to accentuate beauty. In this way, scent is a very important aspect of the local culture and the Scented Balloons activity allowed them to connect the nano science with this custom. Hilo is also the hula capitol of the world, and a hula is a story. Flowers and scents are specially selected to convey certain aspects of that particular story. In a stroke of inspiration, staff adopted a hyphenated version of the flower's name to convey the idea of nano in Hawai‘i "HI-Nano: Hawaii’s Tiniest Technology."

Beyond connecting the Scented Balloons activity to scent and hula, they use the "Exploring Forces: Static Electricity" demo from the 2012 NanoDays Kit to explain the phenomena of thunder snow at the top of Mauna Kea.  As the air moves up Mauna Kea, the static forces create dramatic lighting storms, and when a storm like this happens, you'll see snow atop the mountain the next morning.  The visual connection between the white styrofoam balls and the snow provides a foundation for further inquiry for the kids along with introducing concepts like static electricity.

As a superhydrophobic demonstration, 'Imiloa uses the Taro plant. In Hawaiian culture, Taro is considered an elder in human genealogy, and is an important staple of Hawa'iian culture and cooking. Like the leafs of the Lotus plant and nasturtium, Taro leaf is superhydrophobic, and being able to discuss and demonstrate this phenomena using the tools of the nano kits takes the learner one step further in their scientific explorations. For their educational programs, they leverage the kid's natural curiosity and their keen observations of local natural phenomena.  Staff have the kids find the hydrophobic plants in their beautiful Hawaiian garden that features endemic, indigenous, and Polynesian-introduced plants.

These three activities are only the beginning of what 'Imiloa has planned for making the NanoDays Kit into the HI-Nano Kit.  They're doing a fantastic job of taking the natural curiosity of all the children in Hawai‘i, using the foundation of traditional Hawaiian knowledge that's been around for generations, and making nano relevant and fun for their community.  The popularity of HI-Nano will continue to grow as 'Imiloa has already seen a significant uptick in school reservations and intersession programs enrollment!  We at NISE can't wait to see more!

To find out more about 'Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai'i, please visit, or contact Frank Kusiak of Lawrence Hall of Science, and the Southwest Regional Hub Leader.