WAIMEA, Hawaii (June 30, 2004) In a science lab deep in a basement on the
University of Hawaii-Hilo campus, 17 college students cluster around two slide
projectors at the front of a darkened classroom-turned-laboratory.
As members of the inaugural class
of the Big Island Akamai Observatory Short Course, they are presenting their
discoveries and conclusions from the "Inquiry on Color and Light."
The hands-on experiment is one of
several centerpieces of study, and concludes a week full of 10-hour days
studying complex electronics, optics, astrophysics, as well as mechanical and
software engineering from experts. Their hosts are all career researchers,
technicians and scientists from the observatories on Mauna Kea, the University
of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, and graduate students associated with the
National Science Foundation funded Center for Adaptive Optics.
The windowless room is a
scientist’s dream, and a claustrophobe’s nightmare; perfect for this
experiment: exploring the mysteries of light.
The room is crowded with groups of
two and three students moving among their various experimental stations. There
are slide projectors, overhead projectors and several rectangular boxes which
spill rays of white light on to the table top. A buzz of discovery laced with
questions fills the air; rainbows and circles and squares of projected color
splash the walls.
The equipment they use is standard
issue for a university’s audio-visual supply room. Nothing really fancy like
the oscilloscopes, spectrometers and multi-meters they’d used with the
scientists and technicians of Mauna Kea. But this basic equipment works
perfectly to demonstrate "additive and subtractive" color mixing, allowing the
students to be in charge of the discovery process.
The students are, in the words of
Isaac Newton, "Standing on the shoulders of giants who preceded them in
Funded by the Center for Adaptive
Optics and co-sponsored by the W. M. Keck Observatory, the Akamai Observatory
Short Course is an annual outreach program inaugurated May 31 to June 4, 2004, in
Waimea and Hilo.
W. M. Keck Observatory Astronomer
Dr. David Le Mignant and colleague Sarah Anderson worked with the CfAO
Education and Human Resources team of Lisa Hunter, Malika Moutawakkil and Gale
Kihoi to coordinate the Hawaii Island activities of the Akamai Observatory
Short Course. The course was provided cost free to the students. Astronomy
graduate students Patrik Jonsson and Michael McElwain, and Professor Claire
Max, all from the Center for Adaptive Optics, were the primary teachers for the
Other instructors included staff
from the Canada-France-Hawaii, Gemini, Keck and Submillimeter Array
observatories who donated their time and expertise to teach. Their volunteer
work represented the best offerings from the hundreds of scientists,
researchers, technicians and other support staff who keep the state’s annual
$150 million astronomy industry humming.
The group spent two days in Waimea
and two days in Hilo, with the high point taking place on Wednesday at the
summit of Mauna Kea. The students toured four facilities, stayed for sunset,
and enjoyed the rise of a very full moon. Prior to their visit, the students listened
to Kepa Maly, historian and resource specialist, about the cultural
significance of Mauna Kea, a sacred place for many and a unique place to be
respected by all. As they acclimatized at Hale Pohaku, Kimo Pihana, a Mauna Kea
park ranger and Hawaiian cultural practitioner, "talked story" with the
"The Akamai program is introducing
the exciting fields of astronomy and engineering to student’s career choices,"
said Dr. Claire Max, deputy director of the Center for Adaptive Optics at the
University of California at Santa Cruz.
Sixteen of the seventeen students who participated in the
Akamai Observatory Short Coarse are Hawaii state residents; five are from the
University of Hawaii at Hilo, four are attending college on the mainland, three
are from Maui Community College and five are from elsewhere in the state who
are interested in a potential observatory career.
"We are pleased that we had a
high percentage of local students participating. One of our goals is for kids
to get personal view of life at observatories," said Sarah Anderson from
W. M. Keck Observatory.
During the Akamai course, the
emphasis was on interactive learning and discovery, as well as exposing the
students to the wide range of skills and people needed to power the world-class
research of Mauna Kea’s observatories.
"The Akamai program is designed to
be the first step for observatory internship training programs, to give the
students a hands-on sense of the full breadth of opportunities available," Max
" It’s exciting to hear from all the different people," said one student.
"The inquiry project gave me a
sense of power over what I wanted to know, and it made me want to know more.
It’s empowering," said Mari Okami, a Waimea resident and an engineering
major in her sophomore year at Columbia University in New York City.
Various Hawaii Island observatory
internship programs, administered by the Center for Adaptive Optics, CFHT,
Gemini North, the Institute for Astronomy, Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory, the Submillimeter Array or the W. M. Keck Observatory, will sponsor
more than dozen student internships at observatories this summer.
For the past decade, Mauna Kea
observatories like Keck and Gemini have been sponsoring both high-school
students during the school year and college students during the summer, paying
salaries, providing guidance and even helping with performance reviews for the
"The trend toward offering more
opportunities to students, especially to students from under-represented groups
in science, is strong and growing stronger among the Mauna Kea observatories,"
said Le Mignant.
"That’s the beauty of the Akamai
course," he said. "It gives students the opportunity to learn the basics of the
highly technical skills and concepts used daily at astronomical observatories.
Perhaps for the first time they understand the range of skills needed and
realize they can master them."
"This course is extremely helpful
in learning about observatories in a way that I never knew before," said
"We hope to enlist participation from even more
observatories in future years," said Lisa Hunter of the Center for Adaptive
Optics. "Internships provide students with the skills, motivation, and mentors
needed to be successful in scientific and technical careers. The Akamai short
course brings together the observatories and gets local students ready for a
successful internship experience. By pooling our resources more students can
"We all need to do more," Max said. "We all
have a responsibility to increase opportunities in science and
engineering careers for the young people of Hawaii. This new course is a great
"We all need to do more," Max said.
"We all have a responsibility to increase opportunities in science and
engineering careers for the young people of Hawaii.
This new course is a great first step."
"If you have the talent, the will,
and the opportunity, any person from any background can
succeed in astronomy or engineering," said Dr. Jerry Nelson,
director of the Center for Adaptive Optics, a co-sponsor of the Akamai project.
"This short course literally opened
my wings and allowed me to reach for the stars," said student Noah Luis.