Why Sustainability at This School is More Than Just a Vision

By Jordan Virtue '16

Every individual has a preconceived notion of sustainability— a recycling logo, a desire to eat local, organic food, or perhaps the word itself calls to mind empty promises. At HPA, however, sustainability is not a distant ideal; it is a daily reality and the pursuit of environmental and academic progress. Students smell freshly-cut wood chips spread over the path, covered in mud after reforesting native trees. They scroll through pages of data analytics, harvest fruit from the school garden, and excitedly debate new energy technologies. Passionate student involvement in a myriad of initiatives at HPA creates an inextricable connection within our community, taking tangible steps to create, lead, and thrive.

Thanks to a generous gift from alumnus James Cox Kennedy ‘66, the academic hub of HPA’s campus is newly adorned with solar panels, glistening in the sun as students walk from class to class. Central Pacific Management, owned by alumnus and HPA parent Jeff Richardson ‘89, partnered with Hawaiian Winds to install 540 panels on the cafeteria, art building, IT building, English building, and Castle Lecture Hall. Hawaiian Winds is owned and operated by Stephen Groves, father of Daniel Groves ‘18. The project was beneficial to all involved: the family owned business, the HPA community, and the environment as a whole. Daniel was able to be a part of the process, making for a unique and purposeful experience. “I’m interested in aeronautical engineering, but I’m also really interested in environmental engineering and figuring out different renewable energy options. It’s cool on this island because people are doing so much; we have geothermal and wind farms and solar farms and people using different temperatures of ocean water to make energy. It’s just a perfect place to be - there’s so much going on.”

Daniel Groves combined his independent drone research with his passion for engineering, helping to create a video of the newly-installed solar panels on HPA’s campus.

HPA’s Energy Lab is filled with the latest in technological advances and environmental design, with students researching everything from neuroscience and seismic activity to advanced computer science and drone technology. One thing, however, fills the Energy Lab above all others - sound. It is the sound of student collaboration, enthusiastically exchanging new ideas and beliefs. It is the sound of teachers who call one another into their respective classes, demonstrating the interconnectedness of different academic concentrations. It is the sound of intellectual and technological exploration, and that learning process is sustainable.

“The whole idea of sustainability is that there’s a flow of energy coming into and out of all systems,” Dr. Bill Wiecking, HPA’s Energy Lab director, explains. “An Energy Lab is a place where you can study energy, in all its forms. Within this environment, students are empowered with decision making and the ability to own the process. That’s what we do here - they own the process.” That student-driven dialogue and experimentation is tenable, and that is what Wiecking strives for. “Every system has an input and an output,” he declares. “Our inputs are the new minds, new views, new curiosities, and new intellectual energy that come into this place. Our output is the students that go away to change the world.”

This change is already evident in student independent research projects and their impact on HPA’s learning experience. Alice Patig ‘16 and Zen Simone ‘16 spent a year performing an environmental and energy audit of both campuses. “We set up sensors that measured CO2, temperature, barometric pressure, ambient noise, and relative humidity to see if the learning environments in the classrooms were optimized,” explains Simone. Their data collection and analysis showed that many of the classrooms were well over optimal CO2 and noise levels. “Even if you don’t notice it, noise and CO2 have a subconscious effect on your focus, cognitive function, and classroom performance,” Patig states. After presenting their findings to the Dean of Academics and members of the Board of Trustees, new ventilation systems, windows, and sound panels were installed in many of the classrooms. This environmental research will continue to have a real impact on the learning community through the design and construction of the new phase of HPA’s Upper Campus.

With the smell of fresh wood chips hanging in the air and native and endemic Hawaiian plants such as pohinahina, kukui nut, and uki uki surrounding the classroom, the Terrace Farm and Outdoor Classroom provide a learning space for students in the Waimea hills. “The goal of my Agroecology class is to give everyone experience with small scale farming and sustainable practices,” says Deighton Emmons, HPA teacher and science department chair. Students assist in the maintenance of the terrace farm, which is rich in Hawaiian culture and heritage. Additionally, each student designs and executes a semester long research project that takes meaningful steps towards environmental stewardship. Projects include establishing aquaculture and photovoltaic systems for the Outdoor Classroom, beekeeping, and vermicomposting. Asset Yessenzhan ‘18 of Kazakhstan took his interest in composting and applied it to HPA’s vermicomposting program. Yessenzhan excitedly gestures around the Outdoor Classroom with dirt-covered hands, explaining the various stages of his project. “Before I started, there was another worm compost system that was older and not as effective. So, I’m redesigning and improving the original system to maximize it.” Using carpentry and design skills, his project will create a more efficient vermicomposting system for the school’s use. The results of the semester projects have positive environmental impacts, but the growth and perspective gained in this environment goes far beyond the boundaries of HPA’s campus. “If a seed [of curiosity] is planted from taking a class up here, students have practical, hands-on skills that they can continue to use throughout their lives,” proclaims Emmons.

A similar joy and growth occurs in the Village Campus garden, where lower school students happily spend their recess watering plants and digging away with shovels, covered in dust and grinning from ear to ear. When the whistle blows, Arthur ‘28 turns to Jess Sobocinski, the Village Campus garden coordinator and educator, and asks “Can I keep digging? I don’t want to go inside.” Affectionately known as “Ms. Jess” by her students, Sobocinski is deeply committed to student involvement in outdoor learning. “My vision for a school garden is that it should be a classroom for all of the teachers to use,” Sobocinski explains. “This is a resource for anyone who wants to do project-based, hands-on learning.” Sobocinski coordinates with teachers to relate garden experiences back to academic experiences in the classroom, a skill she honed during her time teaching at Hōnaunau. The garden is utilized by both lower and middle school classes, whether it involves learning about Hawaiian canoe plants or studying the growth of a bean sprout for an art class. “I mostly try to get the kids thinking about ecology and the way things work,” Sobocinski states. The fifth grade class assisted her in redesigning the garden space, discussing environmental factors and aesthetics. The students truly have ownership of the process and, as Sobocinski simply puts it, “The students drive the garden because they love it.”

Sustainability projects, with everything from independent research and student initiatives to project-based learning in the school gardens, are passed down from student to student. Sharing their research and love with fellow students makes the sustainability pursuit itself sustainable. “This is where I feel hopeful about the future,” proclaims Wiecking. “I see the students, [this] generation and those who are following, empowered to go and ask tough questions.”

Jordan Virtue is a 2016 HPA graduate currently attending Harvard University.

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