Is The Hawaii Telescope Cultural Sacrilege Or A Boon To STEM Education?

HONOLULU (AP) — Before going up to Mauna Kea’s summit on Hawaii’s Big Island, Heather Kaluna makes an offering to Poliahu, the snow goddess of the mountain. She holds it sacred, as do other Native Hawaiians.

The mountain holds another important place in her life: Poised to be the first Native Hawaiian to get an astronomy doctorate from the University of Hawaii, she uses the mountain to gaze at the stars.

The two aspects of her identity have collided as protests have erupted in recent weeks over the construction of one of the world’s largest telescopes atop the mountain, pitting her against many in her community and even her own family.

“It’s definitely hard not to feel torn,” said Kaluna, 31. “I respect their beliefs, but at the same time, I think there are a lot of voices not being heard at the moment.”

Some opponents describe fighting the telescope as an “awakening,” an issue Native Hawaiians can band together against. But their reasons vary, from preventing Mauna Kea’s desecration to preserving culture to curbing development.

For some, however, the telescope represents an opportunity to get Native Hawaiian children interested in science, technology, engineering and math – areas in which they have lagged behind.

“If you give kids opportunity, give them education, who knows what’s possible. We need all the help we can get,” said Richard Ha, a Native Hawaiian farmer on the Big Island who has long been supportive of the telescope.

Native Hawaiians make up about 23 percent of the state’s population. A push by the University of Hawaii has resulted in 12 percent of STEM majors at its three four-year campuses being Native Hawaiian, up from 9 in spring 2009.

During the early years of the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope project’s planning, officials met with Big Island residents and heard there was a desire —> Read More