Mari Souza looks on as student Aaron Ploski measures off an area of forest to study. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
From left, Bianca Shropshire, Jaysah David, and Tatianna Staszkow compare and record soil pH test results during a class field trip to the native Hawaiian cloud forest at Eke Ridge. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
From left, seventh grade students Gisselle Gonzalez, Malina Kobayashi, and Keegan Tomonaga compare and record moss growth in different areas of the native Hawaiian cloud forest at Eke Ridge during a class field trip. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
From left, Aaron Ploski and Cyrus Sobrepena identify different types of moss growing in the cloud forest on Eke ridge during a class field trip. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Malina Kobayashi uses a quadrat as a way of measuring fern growth in different areas of the forest. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Terryen Francis shows teacher Mari Souza a snail that he found during a class field trip to the cloud forest at Eke ridge. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Mari Souza works with students in her Waikoloa School classroom. (PHOTO COURTESY OF WAIKOLOA SCHOOL FOR NHN)
On a muddy, wet Saturday morning, a group of about 10 Waikoloa Middle School students tramp through the knee-deep mud in the native Hawaiian cloud forest mauka of Kawaihae Uka on Eke ridge with their teacher, Mari Souza.
But it’s not just a fun five-hour field trip in the forest – the young seventh grade scientists are busy and focused collecting raw field data to use in their own original research project for their life sciences class.
Carrying organized backpacks filled with soil sampling tests, measuring tape and a quadrat made from PVC piping, they make their way up the soggy path for about three hours, methodically collecting their data on fluorescent green clipboards with plastic data tables, stopping four times at designated 100-foot elevation gain points to chart their findings.
The trip isn’t for the faint-hearted, but the students love it.
Seventh grader Tatianna “Tia” Staszkow worked on a project detecting the pH-balance of soil samples at the different stopping points. She said their results were surprising, with highly acidic levels throughout.
She said she thought that having the chance to learn through project-based research in the forest was “really effective.”
“I think that Miss Souza is an awesome teacher; she is the best teacher I’ve ever had,” Staszkow said.
Not your typical in-the-classroom teacher, Souza has had more than 10 years of teaching experience, and she knows that students learn best when they are out in the elements experiencing nature.
To facilitate the fieldwork with her students, Souza is participating in the Kohala Center and the Kohala Watershed Partnership’s Hawaii Island Meaningful Outdoor Experiences for Students, or HI-MOES, program. HI-MOES is a yearlong program that focuses on bay and watershed education where the center’s educators partner with teachers to create project-based education in the field.
“The thing that impresses me about Mari is she has very high expectations of her students,” said Melora Purell, coordinator of the Kohala Watershed Partnership.
“She believes in their ability to do real science, and she has a very systematic way of training them how to do science. She also is amazing because she gives so much of her own time to her students,” Purell said. “She goes above and beyond in what she gives them, and they end up achieving great things because of that.”
Souza is proudly the product of public schools on Oahu. She attended Roosevelt High School and Bradley University in Illinois. Though she initially started school for physical therapy, she ended up following in the footsteps of her mom, Susan Taira, who was an English teacher at Jarrett and Washington Middle Schools and Roosevelt High School.
Souza first taught high school at Farrington High School on Oahu, where she learned from mentors at the school and through a joint project with the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
“I really like teaching middle school,” Souza said. “I have a different perspective having taught high school first. What I was really impressed with is (at that age) their natural curiosity is thriving. My philosophy is, I want to further develop that and not stunt it in any way.”
She said her job is to preserve that curiosity and to direct them to a scientific way of thinking. Over the last four years participating in the HI-MOES program, she has taken about 60 students each year into the forest in groups of about 10 during separate Saturday trips.
“Each year, I have learned how to ask better questions; and I’ve learned how I can help support it (the outdoor research work) in the classroom,” Souza said.
Souza starts the projects by making an exploratory trip into the forest with a few students. She then makes a slide show from the forest to show them, and they discuss possible experiments and formulate questions.
Their experiments are serious and include projects such as examining and identifying the types of insects found at the four different elevations, recording the kinds of moss found close to the path and those found further off the path.
She then helps them choose the tools they’ll need; then they pack their bags and prepare a waterproof data table to chart their results. After the trip into the forest they analyze the raw data, draw their conclusions and present them to the class using PowerPoint. Also, they typically present their projects at an annual HI-MOES Conference held at Keck Observatory headquarters.
This year, they are required to take standardized tests during the conference, so a few of her students will present their projects at the Hawaii Preparatory Academy Second Annual Earth Day Celebration and the First Environmental/Agriculture Science Symposium, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, April 20, at Ulu Malama HPA Terrace Farm.
Kris Kosa-Correia, Waikoloa Elementary and Middle School principal, said that Souza was one of the “most dedicated teachers I have ever had the honor to work with.”
“Her professionalism, dedication to the students, and her love of science shine through daily,” said Kosa-Correia. “She exemplifies the notion of being a life-long learner and is a great role model for the students here at Waikoloa.”
Souza not only focuses on the science, but she also teaches them how to give back to the community. Before each of the trips, the students are required to spend a few hours volunteering in the Koaia Sanctuary at the bottom of the mountain, where they help the native forest by pulling out invasive lantana.
“My ultimate goal is that they not only get the science aspect, but I want them to learn about the place they live, so they take steps to protect it in the future,” Souza said.
Waikoloa seventh grader Jaysah David said this is her second year with Souza. She had her in sixth grade for physical science, and the experience changed her view of the sciences.
“She is a really good teacher, and she explains it to you in a way that you can understand it,” David said.
David said Souza has helped her learn to organize her time; she gives fun examples when teaching and she has her students keep an interactive notebook that helps when studying for tests and quizzes.
“The knowledge that she has actually given to me will make a huge impact, especially in high school when it gets a lot more intricate,” David said. “As a role model, she is a really good person, and I love her as a teacher.”
David said that the work in the Koaia Sanctuary was her first time volunteering, and she said she was intimidated working with the equipment at first, but she quickly gained confidence.
“I thought it was really helpful, and I really think we did make a huge difference,” David said. “When we were in (the sanctuary) it was crowded (with lantana), but when we went out, you could see the trail.”
Seventh grader Malina Kobayashi said her project was to count moss on ferns and trees at each of the four different elevations and find its correlation near water. She said it was her first encounter in a big forest, and she felt Souza prepared them well for the experience.
“We all respect her just like she respects us,” Staszkow said. “I don’t think she is really demanding, but she expects a lot out of us because we are a good class and work well together.”
Purell said that Souza’s care and concern for her students and her expectation of excellence from them is what brings her success and proves that one teacher can make an indelible difference in a student’s life.
“She consistently treats her students with respect and aloha, so she gets that back from them at well,” Purell said.