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Maui Prep students investigate coral bleaching event in West Maui waters

By Staff | Dec 19, 2019

Maui Preparatory Academy students Ashley Nielson and Caden Wheeler research coral bleaching in waters off Kahekili Beach in West Maui.

NAPILI – In the 21st century classroom, there are no ceilings; there are no walls; there are no limitations; all things are possible. The pathways are labyrinthine.

At Maui Preparatory Academy in Napili, five students have taken their recent educational experience beyond their campus to the community and potentially to the world.

Junior Ashley Nielson contacted the Lahaina News.

“Our school has decided to start a new way of learning. On Wednesdays, we participate in this program called ‘Impact Wednesdays,’ where students join a group based on their interests.”

Along with Ashley, Kira Newton, Caden Wheeler, Gabriel Leese, Maya Frank and Andy Webber joined forces “to conduct research to analyze the coral bleaching event that is currently happening on the coast of Maui waters,” Ashley explained.

Maui Preparatory Academy Head of School Robert Landau (right) joined students involved in the research project — from left, Kirsten Byers, Kira Newton, Caden Wheeler, Ashley Nielson and Gabriel Leese — for a dive. Sophomore Maya Frank, an Exchange Student from Germany, is not pictured.

In turn, they partnered with Maui Diving Scuba and Snorkel Center, Ashley said, “to have access to gear and also to have their support and guidance in our research.”

According to Kirsten Byers, Maui Prep math teacher and project supervisor, “We have developed a great relationship with Maui Diving over the past two years. One of the shop owners, Jessica Pickering, has been especially passionate about helping our students get SCUBA certified. Dive Instructors Kevin Leib and Tyler Dreiling also were eager to volunteer their time to come diving with us for this research project.”

Leib and Dreiling were their connection to the underwater world.

“I was helping them by overseeing and confirming that the plan that the students had made was a valid and solid plan and also supervising in the water, in case any of the students needed help,” Leib advised.

“Our main goal was to survey the current bleaching event happening on West Maui, establish a baseline for coral health and investigate the ecological impacts of any bleaching,” 11-year-old, sixth-grader Gabe Leese clarified.

The test site was the reef off Kahekili Beach Park. Their dives ranged from 18 to 25 feet.

“Each dive was a shore dive at Airport Beach (Kahekili). After prepping our gear and research tools, we swam out to our designated spot and placed our 20-meter line along the coral. We dove along that part of the line and studied the coral on both sides of the line. We would write down our data as we collected it on our slates and then later digitally record it back at school,” seventh-grader Kira Newton described.

“We visually classified coral as healthy, partially bleached or dead in addition to measuring the size of each coral documented,” Ashley advised.

“We have been recording all of our data on a Coral Watch website for the public to have access to. Here is the link to make your own report: “https://eorhawaii.org/make-a-report/”>eorhawaii.org/make-a-report/,” she added.

Ashley announced the results of their assessment: “While there is bleaching in affect, it isn’t as severe at Airport Beach as predicted.”

Tenth-grader Caden Wheeler considers their work important, “because we need to learn about our corals in order to save our oceans.”

Budding environmentalist Andy Webber agreed. “It’s important, because it brings awareness to our community about coral bleaching in our local Maui waters.”

Leib was impressed by the learning experience.

“One, it gets the kids involved and interested in science by actually getting them involved. I know they came up with the plan for everything by themselves; and, when they are that involved, it makes them want to learn.”

“Also,” their partner dive instructor continued, “it makes them think about the environment, which is really important everywhere, but nowhere more so than here. The ocean is an integral part of life in Maui. Tourism is the lifeblood of the economy here; and, if we don’t take care of our oceans, they will die and when that happens, people will stop traveling here.

“It will also affect the daily lives of the people that live here in a huge way. Kids can make a huge impact. They have a whole lifetime of small decisions ahead of them that will affect the environment. Not only that, but they can also cause others around them – like their families and friends – to make changes. Things like not ordering straws when going out to eat, or convincing their families to switch over to using reusable water bottles. Little things like that really add up with enough people doing it.”