Classrooms Without Boundaries: Taking Education Outside in Hawaii

At the West Hawaii Explorations Academy, students learn through a project-based curriculum.

November 1, 2001

Running Time: 9 min.

Erin Rietow was a straight-A but, by her account, bored-stiff student at her old high school. When she transferred to the project-learning-centered West Hawaii Explorations Academy, she still garnered top grades, but she became so excited about what she was doing that she came to school early and stayed late.

What changed Rietow's attitude was the approach toward learning at WHEA, located on property of the Natural Energy Lab of Hawaii on the lava-covered Kona coast. As its Web site declares, "WHEA's program is based on the philosophy that students learn best when confronted with hands-on, real-life challenges."

Restoring Ancient Ponds

The main challenge Rietow took on was the restoration of brackish ancient ponds. These ponds, connected to the Pacific Ocean by way of underground lava tubes, were once used by native Hawaiians to bathe, store food, and collect shrimp called opae'ula.

Student Erin Rietow measures oxygen levels in an ancient pond she is trying to restore to its pristine state.

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Once pristine, many are now choked with sediment and alien species, including pickleweed and messy guppies that the U.S. government introduced to combat a mosquito infestation. The tubes are plugged, debris has decomposed to sludge, algae has taken over, and sunlight is blocked.

After much research, which included working with local expert mentors, Rietow decided to test whether adding bacteria that was already in the ponds in small amounts would hasten the cleanup. She applied the bacteria and checked salinity, temperature, dissolved oxygen, and the pH balance, a measure of acidity and alkalinity.

"I wasn't able to come to a scientific conclusion, unfortunately," she told a panel of University of Hawaii graduate students at a science symposium on Oahu. (Oral presentations are an important part of the WHEA program.) "But I found that at the end of the eight weeks, just by looking at the pond, I was beginning to see rock, sand, beginning to see bottom, which was what I wanted to do. I will continue researching."

"Learning Twice As Much"

Rietow's investment in the project, where her classroom was not confined to four walls and textbooks and where she set the direction of her learning, meant, she says, that she was "learning twice as much" and "more worthwhile stuff" than ever. "I'm so blessed to have been able to go to this school," she adds.

WHEA founder Bill Woerner addresses the student body at the daily morning meeting.

Credit: Edutopia

WHEA was founded in 1994 by veteran teacher Bill Woerner, who saw that extracurricular solar and electric car projects at the traditional high school where he worked "spurred students way beyond what they could do in the classroom" -- whether they were labeled at risk or gifted. He wanted to expand that project idea to an entire school.

Now a collection of canopied picnic tables, as well as fish tanks, a hangarlike workshop, and mobile housing, WHEA at first was an off-campus program of nearby Konawaena High School. When it started, it had 53 students in grades 10-12, three staff members, and a host of mentors. In 2000, WHEA became the state's first charter public high school and now has a student population of 131, a staff of 15, including eight teachers, and about 15 volunteer mentors.

Energizing Projects

"When the students get excited and energized by the kind of projects they're working on, they get really involved, and they learn so much more," says Woerner, who serves as director of the school. Because of students' enthusiasm for going deeply into a subject and teaching themselves about geometry or the properties of heat or any number of sophisticated concepts, he is not concerned that they're not reading Hamlet or studying the Civil War. (The literature requirement is to read one novel a quarter.)

Algae removal is a part of the effort to clean up fish ponds once used by King Kamehameha.

Credit: Edutopia

"Education is not a collection of information," Woerner says, adding that he fervently believes that the information students collect, "while important, is much less important than people being able to function in a society. And the students in this school come out of here being able to function very well, whether they go on to college or not."

He notes that 25 percent of WHEA students and 35 percent of students at a neighboring high school enter tenth grade believing they'll go to college. Upon graduation, WHEA actually sends 40 percent of its students to college, and the other school sends 25 percent. Woerner believes that working with mentors and visiting colleges in part account for the unexpected results. "They get some experience in doing things that college students do and say, 'This isn't that hard. I can do this.'"

Doable Anywhere

Woerner also emphasizes that educators interested in trying a project-themed school should not be put off by the fact that their neighborhood lacks ancient ponds or the Pacific Ocean or the Natural Energy Lab at which to do research.

Students meet with their advisers every Thursday to discuss progress on projects.

Credit: Edutopia

"I think in any community you could find similar kinds of resources, although they might be different," Woerner says. "You could find arts -- special-arts people. You could find people in the sciences. You might find people doing special social projects, all of which would be applicable to this kind of situation. This is not unique in that respect. I think the things that we do here could be generalized to any number of community-type projects."

WHEA students must meet the state's high school graduation requirements, but most of these, including writing, science, and history, are incorporated in the projects. Math is taught separately. Foreign language is not required but is offered and encouraged.

"The program doesn't pretend to cover everything, and we're very straightforward about that," says English teacher Curtis Muraoka. "What we do, we try to do well." Projects may include aquaculture and cold-water-agriculture research and production, environmental improvement, desalination, alternative energy development, and sustainable research.

One project involves running a tour in which elementary school students visit a touch tank of starfish, sea cucumbers, and other marine creatures and watch an ecology-themed puppet show. "Most of our kids come away from our program being able to speak in front of a wide variety of audiences," Muraoka says.

Writing and Technology

"It's fairly writing intensive -- fairly weak in classics in literature," he adds. "As the English teacher, I say that with a bit of a blush." But what students may lack in Shakespeare, WHEA's advocates say, they make up for in top-notch skills in research, writing, public speaking, data collection, and technology for a purpose.

Technology is a vital tool used for graphing, spreadsheets, word processing, and other project requirements.

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There is no technology for technology's sake at WHEA: Students rely on the Internet for research. They create databases, spreadsheets, and graphs to illustrate their work. And when they go out into the field to measure heat or oxygen, they are likely to be carrying a probe or another computer device to make their job easier and more accurate.

Students meet every Thursday with their advisers, primarily to talk about progress on projects but also to check in on the two other ways students gain experiences at WHEA -- modules and activities. Modules involve anything that supports the school or other student groups, such as photography, helping put together the yearbook, or distributing tools. Activities may include meeting in a shady spot to discuss poetry.

Students typically work on three or four projects at a time, which may include designing and building an electric car for the annual Hawaiian Electric Electron Marathon. (The school took the championship in 2000.) When students propose a project, the staff looks at a number of criteria, such as whether the project is sufficiently broad, whether it requires teamwork and communication skills, and whether it is "ill structured," meaning that it demands inquiry and reflection, is complex, and has no clear, obvious path to solution.

Variety of Assessments

Students receive grades and are assessed through a variety of means: evidence folders, research papers, literary critiques, and time-management sheets. Use of technology is a prime requirement.

WHEA students act as expert guides to elementary school visitors.

Credit: Edutopia

Woerner is convinced that WHEA's approach produces citizens who will be excited about learning throughout their lives, even if they missed a great work of literature or two during high school.

"I think if students leave school feeling like they're engaged and an active part of the community, they have a much higher probability of getting interested in other things later on," he says. "Students who become relatively disengaged don't feel comfortable with exploring."

Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and a former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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  • Assessment
  • Career & Technical Education
  • Formative Assessment
  • Service Learning
  • Student Engagement
  • 9-12 High School

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