As part of an innovative learning project, Waiʻanae students are helping plan a revamp of the West Side’s main thoroughfare.
As the sole strip of asphalt connecting the West Side communities of Waiʻanae and Mākaha to the rest of O‘ahu, Farrington Highway gets more than its fair share of wear and tear. In anticipation of a critical roadway redesign, Hawaiʻi Department of Transportation (HDOT) recruited the experts at Oceanit, a science, engineering, and technology research and innovations company, to help forge community-based solutions. What emerged from the partnership was a novel idea: tap the minds of students who live, play, and study near the arcing stretch of coastal highway in hopes of gaining an intimate understanding of the ecosystem surrounding it.
With funding assistance from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) grant program, HDOT and Oceanit invited students of the Alternative Learning Opportunities (ALO) program at Waiʻanae High School to imagine and implement a scope for the environmental research. In its pilot year, the 2021 to 2022 school season, ALO students evaluated coastal erosion at Mākaha Beach Park to gauge its influence on the neighboring road and residents.
Jameil Saez, lead STEM teacher for the ALO program, took the young researchers on weekly beach visits to measure and map changes to the coastline and incorporated Native Hawaiian practices such as tracking the moon phases, ocean currents, and tides. With input from Ian Kitajima, “Tech Sherpa” for Oceanit, and HDOT Deputy Director Ed Sniffen, the group performed data-collection methods ranging from low-tech (using a tape measure, throwing a coconut in the ocean to observe its path) to high-tech (capturing aerial data via drones and visual documentation via GPS-enabled photography). The students also met with an Oceanit coastal engineer and brainstormed possible road-placement solutions based on their findings.
For the 2022 to 2023 school year, Saez is guiding the ALO cohort of 18 students through phase two of the HDOT research—focusing on the mauka (toward the mountain) side of Farrington Highway and weighing potential threats to determine optimal paths for a new road. A favorite activity so far is a deep dive into Mākaha’s two iconic bridges, wherein students are exploring the bridges’ history and significance and discussing why altering or replacing them could be hot topics.
At a workshop hosted by Oceanit, Kitajima introduced the students to the concept of design thinking, a creative problem-solving process that balances human wants and needs with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. Applying the first step of design thinking—empathizing with potential users—the students are interviewing kūpuna (elders) and other community members to gauge what is meaningful to them and using the insights to build an empathy map. In the spring of 2023, the students plan to present their cumulative research and recommendations to HDOT in the form of a prototype for the area.
The youth-led field research will likely have significant impacts on the future of Farrington Highway, but even more valuable are the relationships being built through the alliance of industry, education, and community. Though HDOT is already ahead of its time in leveraging AI and other advanced technologies for road planning, Kitajima sees this project as especially groundbreaking because of the harmonizing role the young researchers are playing. “When students ask to meet with community members and want to present their results, everyone shows up, not just the vocal minority—that’s game changing,” he says. “They are learning that the real skill—the hard part—is figuring out how to bring everyone to the middle ground.”
For more information visit: Alternative Learning Programs