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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Science and History Lessons Come from Restoring Ancient Ponds

Students develop and manage their own projects with guidance from mentors in this coastal high school's community. Read the article.
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Science and History Lessons Come from Restoring Ancient Ponds (Transcript)

Narrator: On the Kona Coast of the big island of Hawaii, there's a ramshackle collection of fish tanks, pipes and mobile housing units that looks more like a laboratory than a school. The ambiance is appropriate, because there's a bold experiment in education underway here.

Teacher: I need student helper to be in charge of this to help me put the packets together.

Narrator: Instead of taking biology, history and math, these high school students spend the school day working on various projects that encompass everything from restoring ancient fish ponds, to surveying reef ecosystems, to building exotic electric vehicles and racing them. Opened in the Year 2000 as an alternative public high school for tenth through twelfth grade, the West Hawaii Explorations Academy, or WHEA reflects the educational philosophy of Principal Bill Woerner.

Bill: Education is not a collection of information. Education is being able to function well in a society. These students function really well, because they've learned how to operate on small teams, and to lay out how to solve complicated problems in a reasonable way.

Like two, three, four, five.

Any color? Or white?


Bill: The little pieces and snippets of information they might get along the way, that's sort of irrelevant, that's the risk that they work with. But the structure of how you go about learning and being a lifelong learner, those are the things that, I think, this program does very well.

Teacher: [speaking foreign language]

Student: Si.

Teacher: Okay.

Narrator: Williams 130 students receive some traditional instruction in math, reading, writing and language arts. But they earn most of the credit for their core subjects by managing and staffing a variety of projects. They develop their own research parameters, conduct online research. And consult with mentors.

Student: To take sea water, you have to bleach it, then you have to add the sodium phosphate, and neutralize it. And then you can put the algae in and grow it. So it says...

Narrator: They review their evidence portfolios with their teachers each week, and make a final written and oral presentation of their findings at the end of the semester.

Teacher: And see if you can find the contact for him.

Narrator: While the environment is at times chaotic, some researchers insist that WHEA's approach is effective.

Nina: I have done research that led me to believe that the important parts of education are number one that people have choice and control over their own learning. And number two that they're in a collaborative environment. And thirdly, that kids are engaged in content worth knowing.

Student: Now let it sit here.

Narrator: These WHEA students are restoring an ancient fish pond, a project that combines anthropology, ecology, biology, community service, and manual labor.

Student: It's an old ancient incline pond from back in the day when Kamehameha ruled the Hawaiian Islands. And this was one of his personal ponds that used to hold fish in. This is where he got much of his fish supply for eating, and guppies were introduced a long time ago, and they've overrun the pond. And we're trying to restore the pond to its natural state, which is pristine.

Student: Cleaning out this pond is really important. it's really important to show the children of the future how back in the past that these ponds were used.

Teacher: He's been moved around all day, so he's hiding in there.

Narrator: The projects WHEA students participate in are as varied as the imagination of the students who design them. But most have a public service aspect, like this ecology education program for primary school kids.

C'mon, I can't breathe well.

She is so frightened because she can't have a trouble-free...

What a cruel world! Someone please help me!

What if don't want to? I guess I could try.

Narrator: For new teachers like Shari Harada-Shrai, WHEA's project-based learning approach offers an exciting challenge.

Shari: If somebody told me when I was student teaching that, you know, ten months from now you're going to be in the water snorkeling with your kids and taking data and trying to explain this, I'd be like, "No way!"

Student: There's a lot of different reasons to graph, whether it's dwarfing and that kind of stuff.

Shari: And I'm learning from my students. And that's the real gift. When you model, and then you show it to your other students that, "You know, I'm a learner, too. Not only a teacher, I'm a learner. And I love to learn." Then everybody's just in a whole learning community. [laughs]

Narrator: The learning community at WHEA ranges from special ed to gifted. and the project approach seems to work well at both ends of the spectrum.

Shari: This one particular student, she decided that she wanted to try this school out. And at the first semester, she just-- paperwork would come in, but it was real sloppy, no effort, hardly any journals.

Put numbers inside the tank, so it's like one, two, three, four.

Yes, ma'am.

Shari: The second semester, she has turned in everything. From a research paper to a literary critique, to her evidence folder, weekly paperwork. Always asking me and inquiring for help. You know, just the whole motivation turnaround is total and complete. And she keeps telling me, "Thank you, thank you. I love you." And I said, "No. Thank yourself. You did it. You pushed yourself.”

Narrator: The WHEA staff has developed partnerships with local companies, universities and community organizations recruiting project mentors and opening up career opportunities for students like Jared Willeford, who landed a job at a nearby microalgae farm.

Jared: I was really interested in what they were doing, and I caught on really fast, so they kind of integrated me into the process, and now I'm getting paid, and I'm moving up the field, so I'll be a technician pretty soon. In the future, maybe if I can get a farm, and I've already learned all the different fertilization methods, and things such as that, so I could set up my own system and kind of live off my own stuff, you know? Pretty much live off of what I've learned.

Narrator: Notice how they have those spot patterns on their back?

Student: Mm hm.

Mentor: That's totally unique.

Narrator: Mentors play a key role in many WHEA projects. Erin Rletow has been studying water quality issues, working with the staff at the Four Seasons Resort.

Mentor: We do a salinity test.

Erin: Got about a 26. How come it's so low?

Mentor: Well, it's low as compared with the ocean, which is about 34-35 parts per thousand, but we keep it low like that so that the fish can't reproduce.

Erin: Compared to books, magazines, articles, working with mentors has been my biggest source of information all throughout the three years that I've been at the school. And not only can you ask direct questions, and they can answer them, but they also give you more than what you asked for.

Mentor: The lone female. She's the biggest.

Narrator: Erin has been conducting an experiment for the past three years on a brackish water pond at the resort to see if the introduction of bacteria will improve water quality.

Erin: I love what I do. [laughs] And it's really exciting, and it feels good! Instead of-- compared to being where I was before, sitting in a classroom, four walls, lights, textbooks, desks. This is my classroom now. This is where I learn.

Narrator: Part of the learning process is demonstrating what you know. For Erin, that meant presenting her research findings to a panel of graduate students at the University of Hawaii on Oahu.

Erin: For those of you who aren't sure what incline pools are, they're pretty much landlocked brackish water ponds. There's three characteristics that really define a pool.

Erin: If you want to excel and you want to push yourself, there isn't any class in a public school that could give you what you can give yourself, and that's what the greatest thing is is because it's all you. I'm so blessed to have been able to go to this school. It's great.

Narrator: For more information on what works in public education, go to

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producer:

  • Leigh Iacobucci


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • John Dobovan
  • Ken Ellis
  • Lew Trusty

Underwater Photography:

  • Lew Trusty


  • Susan Blake


  • Morgan Ho

Special thanks to

  • Cyanotech Corporation Four Seasons Resort
  • © 2001
  • The George Lucas Educational Foundation
  • All rights reserved.

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