Supporting innovative aina-based STEM learning on Maui

Hawaiian Electric
4 min readFeb 6


by Shayna Decker | Feb. 6, 2023

I must admit: Science and math were not my favorite subjects in school.

It was not the fault of any of my wonderful teachers, who made it interesting — like the time we got extra credit for bringing in toads we found at the local golf course to dissect!

However, recent visits to two Maui-based schools, got me to rethinking that I would have a different outlook if I were currently a young learner at Ke Kula O Piilani in Iao Valley or a student participating in the Ma Ka Hana Ka Ike program in Hana.

The two nonprofit organizations are taking STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) learning to a whole new level. By integrating modern STEM curriculum with traditional Hawaiian knowledge and aina-based learning, they are cultivating unique, innovative and hands-on ways to engage their haumana (students).

Nestled at the base of Iao Valley and founded in 2016, Ke Kula O Piilani is an independent Hawaiian immersion elementary school that recently received $15,500 from our Hawaiian Electric Industries Charitable Foundation. The donation will support additional resources for culture-based STEM lessons for its Na Imi Naauao: Seekers of Wisdom program.

Ke Kula O Piilani Kumu Lahela Mata-Goldmann (middle) works with fifth graders Kalaeula Baybayan-Kapuaala and Honi Honi Au Hoon (foreground) as they construct their own olokea, a scaffolding-like structure used to build traditional hale.

Pookula (head) of Ke Kula O Piilani Kekai Robinson explained the additional funds will help to increase integrated STEM learning hours to at least eight hours per week per grade level in a variety of their outdoor learning environments and in a newly outfitted science lab.

“Our haumana have been sharing one microscope,” Robinson said as we walked through a classroom where students were constructing their own olokea, a scaffolding-like structure used to build traditional hale. “Now, more students together will be able to closely examine native species, like limu (algae) collected from Iao river during our lessons.”

For more than 22 years, Ma Ka Hana Ka Ike — in partnership with Hana School — has mentored and taught its East Maui students marketable construction skills through the process of building structures and other items to help meet current needs in their community. Through the years, program participants have built 39 kupuna cottages enabling community elders to age in place.

The Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike program in East Maui has helped to construct 41 educational spaces like this preschool classroom on the Hana School campus.

While we walked through the organization’s wood shop and outdoor learning spaces, Lipoa Kahaleuahi, executive director of Ma Ka Hana Ka Ike, also took us to some of the 41 educational spaces they helped to build from the ground up on the school’s campus. Other items students have engineered by hand, include canoe paddles and papa kuiai (poi boards).

Ma Ka Hana Ka Ike Graduate Teacher Lyman Diego explains how their students handcrafted the paddle made from a gifted koa tree from Kipahulu, Maui.

The materials used for their woodworking projects often come from gifted fallen trees. Teachers, some of whom are graduates of the program themselves, then train the students to create usable lumber via an air-drying method that takes about one year of drying time per inch of lumber thickness. With this method, a three-inch thick piece of lumber can take up to three years to dry before it can be used for building purposes.

To further expand its construction program, Ma Ka Hana Ka Ike recently received a $20,000 donation from Hawaiian Electric to support the construction of a 288-square-foot solar wood-drying kiln. The new kiln will decrease the lumber drying from 12 months to one month, as well as further enhance the program’s curriculum with lumber milling and drying experience.

Kahaleuahi explained that students will also be able to experiment with different drying times based on the solar output of the kiln.

“Our mission is to provide our Hana youth a service-oriented, hands-on way of learning that builds self-esteem and valuable technical skills,” Kahaleuahi said. “With this new space, we can continue to expand the ways we teach the next generation to respectfully and purposefully use the abundance of special resources in our community.”

Seeing the excitement and passion shine from teachers to students during these visits were inspiring. And it made me want to spend more time with all of them in the classroom — even if it involves math and science!

Shayna Decker is a director of government and community relations at Hawaiian Electric.



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