Monday | October 23, 2017
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Beyond the classroom


Stephens Media Hawaii

Real-world experiences through school-community partnerships are fueling two Hawaii Preparatory Academy seniors’ passions for science and learning. Such opportunities are also helping the students acquire essential skills and knowledge by studying, collaborating and doing.

Hannah Twigg-Smith and Luigi Balbo Bertone Di Sambuy are in HPA’s independent study program, an option that goes beyond the normal curriculum and allows students to study something of interest with staff guidance. Three times a week, both students work on various research projects at the school’s Energy Lab, a unique renewable-energy facility.

Twigg-Smith’s latest project has been creating 360-degree virtual reality tours of 11 observatories at or around the Mauna Kea summit. When completed, the tours will give the public a rare view of the telescopes, control rooms and spaces where the staff hangs out. Each tour will also have pop-ups with information about the observatories, their equipment and their discoveries, as well as includes short videos featuring astronomers and other staff members.

The project was contracted by the Imiloa Astronomy Center, after staff members saw the virtual reality tour of W.M. Keck Observatory created a couple of years ago by former HPA student Mariko Thorbecke. Wanting something similar of all the observatories for an exhibit, Imiloa Astronomy Center contacted Bill Wiecking, HPA’s Energy Lab director and the advance self-directed science research students.

Twigg-Smith, 16, eagerly jumped at the opportunity, mostly because of her love of photography. She also believes in the value of such tours and likes how they make places accessible for those who wouldn’t normally be able to visit. She spoke about how advances in technology can help schools work around their tight budgets via online tours and live broadcasts. Nowadays, there’s a world of possibilities for students to virtually explore and the Mauna Kea observatories will soon be among the choices, she added.

Over the summer, she met with the staff members from the Imiloa Astronomy Center and observatories to discuss their visions and goals of the tours, as well as determine the best way to achieve them. She then visited Mauna Kea for the first time. At each of the observatories, she meticulously captured various high dynamic range images of the interior and exterior. Her equipment included a camera, fish-eye lens, panoramic head and tripod. She received help from Thorbecke, who was home from college. Using a computer and special software, Twigg-Smith then stitched together the images — a process that took weeks. Twigg-Smith recently submitted basic versions of the tours to Imiloa Astronomy Center.

Shawn Laatsch, the center’s planetarium manager, estimated the tours will be available for public viewing by the beginning of next year. He said it has been wonderful working with HPA, Twigg-Smith and inspiring the next generation of explorers. He is impressed by the students’ technical knowledge and professionalism, as well as their enthusiasm to share the connections between Hawaiian cultural traditions and astronomy.

Twigg-Smith thinks learning opportunities such as this one help students get a foothold to launch into future career paths and may even be listed on resumes. Balbo Bertone Di Sambuy, on the other hand, thinks real-word learning that links students with creative teachers and community mentors showcases there are endless opportunities, filled with tons of experience, talent and intelligence, to do even more worthwhile collaborative work. An example of this is perhaps his research project on earthquakes and seismic data.

Five years ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration installed a sophisticated broadband seismic station beneath the school’s dinning hall. Balbo Bertone Di Sambuy, 17, is the first HPA student to actually attempt to examine the data collected by the school’s station. With help from Wiecking and Kanoa Koyanagi of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, Balbo Bertone Di Sambuy was able learn about basic mechanics of earthquakes, interpret waveforms and generate reports.

The work is commendable because typically one does not pursue such earth science-related studies until college, Koyanagi said.

Besides collecting data from the school’s station, Balbo Bertone Di Sambuy also gathered real-time information from 19 other seismic stations, owned by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. He compared his data with the Hawaii Volcano Observatory’s online reports. He was able to detect an earthquake’s primary and secondary waves, as well as the ground waves generated by the movement of magma deep beneath the island. Balbo Bertone Di Sambuy said he was able to see, detect and record about four small earthquakes that occurred on average on the Big Island, along with bigger events in Japan and Canada.

The fact that his reports had no bearing on those done by the professionals and went often no further than the Energy Lab mattered little to Balbo Bertone Di Sambuy. What was more important, he said, was the “opportunity to explore the mysterious and fascinating movements that happen under the soil and also to master the interpretation of professional graphs and data.”

Balbo Bertone Di Sambuy said he was grateful for the experience because it showed “the infinite possibilities that exist when diving into interests, embracing the opportunity to address real-life situations and creating learning opportunities by exposing yourself to new things.”

Email Carolyn Lucas-Zenk at


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