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A recent excursion to Mauna Kea to the see the stars changed suddenly: a rare snowfall blocked the roads and to my long-awaited night of viewing the heavens on some of the best peaks in the world. Skies atop the Big Island are an open star-scape, unspoiled by city lights or pollution. But the roads to the peaks were snow-closed. A rare event.

This is how a rare event turned into an even rarer and more memorable one. It turns out I did see the stars—different ones, in different ways:

Instead of the high mountain, my husband Jim and I met up with a colleague who invited us to have lunch with local leaders involved in NexTech and The Success Factory of Hilo, on the east side of the island. They share a common dedication—helping high school STEM students succeed; their efforts show that their graduates have something to boast about. Former students from their STEM programs are now at Jet Propulsion Lab today working on the Mars 2020 rover (to look for potential life on Mars) while others are working on innovations for planet health (including how to take care of their island and its local waters.) We were asked to visit the students’ lab and the Discovery Center where we found more rising stars—our emerging leaders of the future.

We met with STEM and robotics students of Waiakea High School in Hilo, and other students and their parents at the Mokupapapa Discovery Center, who asked us to offer our perspectives about innovating and innovations. “Don’t allow these words in your life,” Jim said: ‘I can’t’ and ‘It’s impossible’.” Then he told them about how he solved old problems by discovering new ways to teach young children to learn to read (including the LeapPad invention that helped teach 100 million children to read) and a smart pen that records what you write (the LiveScribe Pen). Both inventions, he told them, took courage, hard work, and listening to others, adding: “You will do this too, as you invent new robots.”

I spoke about inventions STEM students are making for astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) using the 0G-3D printer. “The next invention will be for a mission to Mars. “Imagination,” I said, “is the key to new horizons and you’re your role as future leaders too,” and pulled out my laptop to show them the video of an ISS astronaut demonstrating a new product invented by students. My advice: “Don’t be discouraged if your courses are hard, or your grades aren’t perfect. Colleges and companies look for what risks you took, how you tried again, and how you found ways to find answers to what intrigues you.” The students have several projects on their 3D printers in their lab. “When you’re working to solve problems with new approaches,” I said, “think about people outside of your usual teams. They’ll have other ways of thinking about your problem with insights that might not occur to you because their focus may be outside the sciences or technology—like writing, history, ethics, and cultural perspectives.” 

We were guided over to the James Clark Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) East Asian Observatory and control center in Hilo. In April 2019, the JCMT was part of the eight-telescope Event Horizon Telescope project that took the first direct image of a black hole. This success took more than a decade, and some believed that it would be impossible to take an image of a black object that is as many as millions of light years away and from which light cannot escape: The image below is the Event Horizon, the area of glowing gas just outside the point of no return of the black hole. The unimaginable had come to life, the impossible, achieved. Other countries have since been recently added to observer status to join the operation: Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia. With collaborations from other scientists we gain more knowledge, learn more about gravity, and what may be our destiny.   

The astronomers at the JCMT added something very inspiring, their personal philosophy on what the next discoveries from the stars may bring: “We think the stars will unite us,” they said. When they day comes that we find life beyond Earth, and that may happen in the near future, the event may help humankind. We will see that, on this fragile blue planet we all share, we must endeavor to live in peace together, as one.       

The heavens that can been seen so well atop Mauna Kea will be mine to view another day. I did not get on the path to see the stars from that perspective and instead discovered others, the students and the astronomers, who I am sure, will find the stars one day that will unite us. It’s possible.

Image of the black hole in the M87 galaxy.

“After your visit, my mind has been stirring around building student capacity in creativity, invention and innovation.” Gail Takaki: Stem Education Director for NexTech, Hawaii, February 13, 2020

Telescope atop Mauna Kea that took the image of the black hole, April 10, 2019.

Images above our head in Hawaii: spinning fronds of coconut and monkey pod trees imitating a galaxy; galaxies imitating the trees. 

“STEM Tech and Space” MJ at the Hilo, Hawaii; Feb. 6, 2020