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Marine biology graduate students clearing the stream at Papahana

Innovative place-based graduate education at
UH Mānoa receives funding boost 

(Honolulu, HI) – University of Hawai‘i (UH) at Mānoa faculty who developed an innovative graduate course focused on place-based research were awarded funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in support of their efforts. The NSF Innovations in Graduate Education program provided a boost of over $495,000 to continue and expand upon this work for the next three years.

The course, Kūlana Noiʻi: Introduction to Place-based Research Methodologies in Hawaiʻi, was piloted in 2021 as part of the Marine Biology Graduate Program (MBGP) at UH Mānoa. The course, which begins with a two-week intensive and continues into the fall semester,is aimed at providing students with a grounding in what constitutes a research paradigm and the knowledge and skills necessary to conduct place-based research in Indigenous spaces with a focus on Hawaiʻi.

“When students enter the MBGP, they typically lack formal training in multiple knowledge systems and appreciation of the cultural context in which they undertake their scientific research,” said Megan Donahue, research professor at the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) and co-director of the MBGP. “This course introduces students to the historical, social, and cultural context of Hawaiʻi and exposes students to  place-based methodologies and community-based research.”

Through partnership with the Heʻeia National Estuarine Research Reserve, the first week of the course focuses on the He‘eia ahupua‘a, while the second week connects students with other communities undertaking biocultural restoration and research around O’ahu.

“By valuing the communities and knowledge systems of places where our students work, the course promotes an alignment of the graduate program culture to the communities,” said Rosie Alegado, lead instructor and co-principal investigator. “This approach also strives to create a more welcoming environment for local and Indigenous students, thereby supporting a long-range plan to increase recruitment and retention of students with diverse backgrounds.”

The Kūlana Noi‘i outlines a set of ideas, values, and behaviors that when applied alongside hard work can build more just and generative relationships between researchers and community. This framework centers the essential interdependence of people and ecosystems as foundational to place-based learning. The Ulana ‘Ike Center of Excellence at the University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant College Program (Hawai‘i Sea Grant) has worked for the last six years to provide professional development and training for students and faculty within the UH System focused on the Kūlana Noiʻi framework.

One student who completed the course said, “I feel a strong connection to my cohort as well as the program and this place. I would have never felt that without this course. I think the connections I made in the program will matter throughout my graduate career.”

In addition to supporting the continued training of MBGP students and curriculum development, the grant provides the opportunity for principal investigators Donahue, Alegado, Shimi Rii, Fred Reppun, and Monica Stitt-Bergh to work with faculty in other programs on campus to help them develop analogous courses tailored to their disciplines.

“Grounding our curriculum in an ethical framework promotes reciprocal engagement and knowledge co-production with communities wherever these emerging researchers do their work, and changes the culture of graduate education as UH Manoa aspires to be an Indigenous place of learning,” said Donahue.

This course reflects the collaboration of instructors from diverse and intersecting units across campus: Alegado (Oceanography/ Hawai‘i Sea Grant), Katy Hintzen (Hawai‘i Sea Grant), Shimi Rii (HIMB/HeNERR), Fred Reppun (HIMB/HeNERR), Celia Smith (School of Life Sciences/ MBGP), and Donahue (HIMB/MBGP).