Today@Sam Article

Growth Comes Through Learning In Hawaii ACE Field Course

Sept. 9, 2022
SHSU Media Contact: Emily Binetti

By Sarah Burchett, Center for Community Engagement

shsu students on trip to Hawaii.

For students, reading a textbook and listening to lectures about Hawaii in a classroom is one form of learning, but experiencing its beautiful beaches, unique climate, ancient culture and delicious cuisine in person is quite another.

In 2012, Sam Houston State University geography Professor Ava Fujimoto-Strait proposed to teach a new field course in partnership with her husband and fellow professor, John Strait. She wanted to not only educate her students about the many geographical facets of Hawaii, but hoped to impact students for years to come.

Being born and raised in Hawaii, Fujimoto-Strait knew the importance of students experiencing the culture and environment firsthand in order to grasp what makes it so remarkable. She also knew it would benefit them to disconnect from technology and connect with the people and world around them.

The Straits designed the course to have students learn about Hawaii in the classroom during the semester and, after the semester concludes, the class makes its way to the Big Island for a weeklong field experience. The course now includes an Academic Community Engagement (ACE) component through their work with an environmental and cultural non-profit and long-time community partner, Pōhāhā I Ka Lani.

“The on-campus component is necessary,” Fujimoto-Strait said. “You must appreciate what you have learned before going out there to apply it. But if we did a solely on-campus class, say, geography of Hawaii, students would learn the material but would not experience it. It is the experience of that one week that makes the difference. Getting out of your comfort zone makes learning exponential.”

Stepping out of the classroom and removing the barrier between faculty and students gives way to a variety of new learning experiences, such as how to travel, how to better communicate and learning about oneself.

The Straits have seen many students learn through their experiences in Hawaii over the years.

“Students are learning the whole time. They learn when ordering food, what it is like to not have AC, and what Hawaiian music is like on the radio,” Strait said. “It is funny, they start the first couple of days with this backpack, and it has got all this stuff in it that you could conceivably need, then they realize that, by the end of the week, there is no need for a backpack, just water. You can tell them to prepare, but it is different when you are in it. That is a form of learning.”

students on trip to HawaiiOne of the most impactful learning moments for students is when they get to connect to the island on a deeper level by spending their final day working in tandem with their community partner in the ancient and tropical Waipio Valley.

The organization teaches the students how to use self-sustained, traditional agricultural methods to revitalize the area while also teaching Hawaiian history and culture. The valley is used to grow food to share with the community and, in years past, many students harvested an ancient taro field. While the students learn about environmental sustainability in class, they realize that this is not just a lesson, but a way of life.

“By the end of the field course, the students feel they want to give back,” Fujimoto-Strait said “I tell them, this is your day to give back to the island and its people. I do not know how to explain it unless you go down there, but it is remarkable to be in a taro field built in 250 A.D., knowing that these ancient Hawaiians were working in this same soil. It is special.”

Carolyn JessCarolyn Jess, a former student of the Straits, was so impacted by the trip and community engagement experience that she continues to carry it with her to this day.

“If I had one word to describe the entire experience, I would say it was humbling. Incredibly humbling,” Jess said. “I am so grateful that I was able to take this trip with professors who know exactly what we need to experience and what is important to bring back with us.”

While the students spend time in the fields, helping native plants grow, they, too, are experiencing growth on a personal level.

“There is very much a self-learning component. In this sense, you learn about the world and who you are. People think that you are learning about Hawaii, and you are, but you almost learn as much about where you are from as where you are going,” said Strait. “We are all a product of our experiences; part of those experiences are the places we have been and lived. So, the students do grow and change for the better.”

The Straits want to instill a love of learning in their students and hope this course inspires them to implement what they learned from the last day in Hawaii and beyond.


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