Learning at the Lip of a Volcano

“Why is the sand green, again?” one student asked Upper School Science Department Chair Jeff Yuhas. She was standing on Papakōlea Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii, along with 18 other Oak Knoll Upper School peers. They had previously learned about the mineral Olivine back in Summit in a science classroom, but standing on a bright green Olivine beach with waves crashing in the distance during their summer excursion to Hawaii made them all the more interested in how this basalt forms during the slow cooling of lava flows.

“I asked if she wanted the long answer and she said yes,” said Yuhas. “I actually had a captive audience where all of a sudden, here we are on this gorgeous green sand beach in Hawaii, and I’m offering a mini-course on mineral science. That’s the kind of opportunity students and teachers have when they are learning at the source.”

The hike to Papakōlea Beach was on just one of 10 days packed with immersive learning in Hawaii sponsored by Oak Knoll’s Science Department. Prior to the trip, interested students were invited to several orientation sessions, and they quickly learned that this trip wouldn’t exactly be a vacation. “We make sure that they know that this isn’t the Hawaii trip you might do with your family. We don’t stay at a hotel and there’s no pool,” explained Yuhas. The participants know going in that the primary purpose of this trip is to bolster their understanding of earth sciences, environmental science, biology, and geology. 

Participants stay in shared dorm rooms at the Kilauea Military Camp in Volcanoes National Park. They monitor the action of the active Kīlauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes, pass steam vents, explore an underground lava tube, hike to the visitors station at 9,000 feet in elevation en route to the Mauna Loa observatory, chop down invasive plant species in the park, and surround themselves with the natural scientific beauty of the Big Island. 

“I seriously did not know it was possible to like learning even more than I already did,” said  Eve Carbeau ’24. “I already loved learning in a basic school environment,  but learning in Hawaii was otherworldly. Being immersed in the ever-changing, completely unique environment of the Big Island while learning about the things that pique my interest most – environmental and biological – provided me with immense enthusiasm, and honestly, just pure amazement.”

Which isn’t to say the learning is all academic. As Rory Weldon ’24 explained, “Mr. Yuhas put together an incomparable Hawaiian adventure. There was one iconic island experience after another. We saw red lava exploding from a volcano, tried our hand at surfing, paid our respects to the soldiers at Pearl Harbor, hiked to the famed green sand beach, sampled the tasty local cuisine at a farmers’ market, caught sight of dolphins, turtles, and manta rays, and so much more. We were also excited to give back to this wonderful community through a service project removing invasive species from the rainforest.”

Participants also took a snorkel trip, went whale watching, sampled kayaks and paddle-boards, learned about organic coffee and macadamia nuts, and bonded with each other and their faculty mentors in ways that can only occur on such a shared experience. 

Oak Knoll students are making memories connected to their learning that will last a lifetime. By taking learning to its source, students are acquiring knowledge, mastering subject matter, and finding purpose in what they are learning well beyond the classroom, campus, and course.