Img 0518

Education that serves the real world

Ikaika M Hussey

On Wednesday I learned from my freshmen-year biology teacher that there used to be five species of crab in the Ala Wai, and now there are two.

Of course, I’m not lucky enough to still be a ninth-grader. And the room in which Jack Kay shared this information with me and a group of journalists is quite different than my classroom 12 years ago. The ‘wet lab’ at Iolani’s brand-new Sullivan Center for Innovation and Leadership is an amazing space, with a huge monitor for a digital microscope, power outlets dangling from the ceiling like stalactites, and equipment with which Mr. Kay and his students can do genomic research. When I was a student, I learned about genetics from Mr. Kay via a heavy blue textbook and lectures. Today, his students are able to learn by doing, augmented with modern technology.

The Sullivan Center, or “Sully,” as I overheard one student say during the alleyway of time between classes – I wonder if it’s still three minutes – was open today for the press, in advance of a grand opening ceremony on Friday. What I saw, through the eyes of an alumnus, is a wonderful re-statement of the primary drive of the school. Under David Coon, Iolani became an East Coast-style college preparatory school. Now, it seems to be applying that standard of academic quality to it’s environs, in the Waikiki ahupua‘a and the very dense, and often problematic, community along the Ala Wai.

Case in point: the One-Mile Program, led by Allison Ishii Blankenship, is a locally-focused service learning program. Students under Blankenship’s leadership are working with the UH Center on aging, and they’re addressing issues that the elderly contend with in the immediate Moiliili community.

Via email from Blankenship:

Our students have done walkability audits of the neighborhood to assess how “age friendly” are streets are, and have also interviewed kupuna in our neighborhood to find out their needs. From all of this information gathering, our students will have 10 weeks to come up with solutions to a problem facing the elderly (whether that is fall prevention, safe sidewalks, transportation options, aging at home, etc.). They will then present these solutions to community stakeholders at a “Town Hall” in January. 

And with the technologies available in the ground floor of the Sullivan Center, they might be able to make those solutions concrete, if you’ll pardon the pun. There, physics teacher Carey
‘Doc’ Inouye oversees a CNC machine, a maker bot, a 3D printer. And alongside the physical tools for 21st century design and fabrication, there is a digital media lab, and perhaps most importantly, faculty who can speak expertly to robotics, iPad app development, film, journalism, and even video game creation.

But tools and talent only provide the means; they must be animated by purpose. And it seems that the school is providing that. I spoke with Kelsey, a senior, who is working with Dr. Christopher Lum and his team of pathologists at Queen’s Hospital, doing basic research on Ewing’s sarcoma, a soft tissue cancer that afflicts young people under 20, with a very low 40% survival rate. “Papa Jack” – my same biology teacher – connected her with Dr. Lum. She’s right there in the lab, examining the translocation of genes. “We all have different chromosomes, and so we know if we tag the genes, we can tell when a translocation has occurred,” Kelsey said. I was grateful for the explanation.

Across the football field from the Sullivan Center, a six-foot tall machine is set to begin a biomass operation, gassifying the shells of macadamia nuts to provide carbon that can be used for sustainable agricultural operations, according to new Iolani head of school Dr. Tim Cottrell. “It’s education that thinks about the real world,” he said. Another of their real world projects: on the concrete lanai on the fourth floor of the new building, students are growing plants in Tower Gardens, vertical hydroponic operations that are about the size of a seventh-grader, perfect for the apartment towers on the other side of the Ala Wai.

Kyle Oba is experimenting with an old form of instruction in his iPad app design class. There, he’s working alongside his students on app projects, in the way a master craftsman interacts with apprentices. They collaborate on code, pushing and pulling lines of Matrix-like text between Git repositories. “We’re really one team,” he said. I’m not sure if he realizes it, but he’s echoing the motto of the school. “Iolani One Team,” the school says, referring to Father Bray’s athletic leadership from the days when Iolani was known as a sports school. It’s wonderful to see our team working for a broader good.