Subaru Helps Young People Reach for the Stars

April 9, 2010

Astronaut Ellison Onizuka Science Day stands out as special time when volunteers and scientists can communicate their enthusiasm for science. This year’s successful event marked its 10th anniversary as well as the 25th anniversary of the late astronaut Ellison Onizuka’s first flight into space on the space shuttle Discovery.

There were a variety of ways that participants could learn about and discover the thrill of science, including workshops for young people in grades 4-12; interactive displays by observatories, UHH, and community organizations; hearing an address by or meeting astronaut Dr. Anna Fisher; and being inspired by the science demonstrations of the Big Island's "Mr. Science is Fun", Waiakea High School physics teacher, Dale Olive.

Dr. Kumiko S. Usuda, Subaru's outreach scientist, student assistant Ikumi Hara (UHH) and Huiana intern Brace Gotshalk (Hilo High School) gave a popular workshop entitled "Design an Alien: Introduction to Astrobiology".

To demonstrate the meaning of a habitable zone on another planet, they challenged participants to design an alien for a specific planetary environment. This was one of several presentations that Dr. Usuda has made since 2005, when she first became involved with the event. She noted that Subaru's role was particularly successful this year and provided "great exposure to introduce the observatory to people in the community." Participation by the entire Public Information and Outreach staff allowed for greater involvement in both the workshop and display portions of the event. Subaru's display invited visitors to learn about astronomy by peering through small telescopes, receiving a poster summarizing the history of telescopes(pdf file), or finding out about Subaru’s discoveries.

Astronaut Ellison Onizuka Science Day is a context that fosters human connection and inspiration for future generations. Art Kimura, a retired DOE teacher, now an education specialist with the Hawaii Space Grant Consortium, and one of the two NASA Teacher-in-Space candidate state finalists in 1985, helped found the event. The teacher selected as the teacher-in-space would be part of the crew, along with Ellison Onizuka, on the space shuttle Challenger. After Onizuka's tragic death at age 39 in the Challenger's explosion in 1986, Kimura and the Onizuka family wanted to continue the educational mission of the Challenger and honor the legacy of Onizuka, Hawaii's first astronaut. With the support of UHH's Chancellor Rose Tseng and the initial and ongoing support of American Savings Bank, the model of California's El Camino College's Onizuka Day was used to establish the event in Hawaii.

In articulating the purpose of this special day, he also held a Hawaiian boy's wish close to his heart. The youth from Nanakuli implored him, "Help me to reach for the stars." Kimura and his wife befriended the boy and helped him go to space camp in Alabama. Like Onizuka, the boy came from a humble background; he also had a dream of being an astronaut; he, too, demonstrated Onizuka’s humility, hard work, and perseverance; and he had an untimely death, expiring from an aneurism when he was 15 years old. Kimura regards this young person as an inspiration, a hero, just as he respected Onizuka. He commented, "I know there are others out there like him. How can we touch them in a significant way and stimulate them so that they go for their dreams?" He suggests that one way is for parents and children to have conversations about science, to humanize it. Another is to make it interesting, sharing its value and meaning.

For Kimura, the event is ultimately about people, however they choose to participate. His positive view of Subaru’s role is partially based on the enthusiasm of those who have been involved in the workshops and staffing the display. He summed it up by saying, "Much of an impression of an organization comes from the people."

As the years have passed, Astronaut Ellison Onizuka Science Day has taken a firm hold in the Hilo community. In the beginning, there were 15 workshops; now there are 26. Over 20 organizations provide exhibits, and over 200 volunteers help host the annual event. Some families and teachers come every year, and preregistrations for workshops have grown to almost 600 this year. More volunteers, scientists, and community leaders join together in a sense of common purpose, enriching their own lives as well as those of the young people they inspire. This story will be continued next year.

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