Journey Through the Universe returns for 20th year to inspire Big Island students

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Devin Chu’s dream of becoming an astronomer started when he was a keiki. He was hooked at a young age after borrowing a book about the solar system from Hilo Public Library during a visit with his mother.

Seeing the planets and worlds that could be explored provided the spark that would lead the Hilo native, whose family has lineal ties to the very beginning of astronomy on the Big Island, to take every chance he could to learn about the cosmos growing up. That included programs focused on science and astronomy with hands-on experience while he was in school.

Scot Kleinman, Gemini’s Observatory’s associate director of development, shares how a coronagraph helps scientists discover exoplanets with second-grade students at E. B. De Silva Elementary in Hilo during a 2020 Journey Through the Universe classroom activity. (International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/ J. Pollard)

One of them was Journey Through the Universe, a partnership between the International Gemini Observatory on the Big Island, which is operated by the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab, and the Hilo-Waiākea Complex Area.

The weeklong education and outreach program returns Feb. 5-9 for its 20th year of expanding science literacy and inspiring students in grades 3-12 at 14 Hilo area schools to explore the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) through classroom presentations, career panels, public events and more.

“When I was a student at Hilo Intermediate and Hilo High schools, the Journey program had a profound impact on my decision to pursue astronomy as a career,” said the now 32-year-old Chu, who received his doctorate in astrophysics from the University of California, Los Angeles, specializing in studying stars around the black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

The Hilo High School grad was also recruited to join the Keck All-sky Precision Adaptive optics project by the W.M. Keck Observatory atop Maunakea.


“The Journey program provided a perspective for me and a path forward to work with local astronomers,” Chu said. “I’m sure I’m not the only one to feel this inspiration from the scientists who visited our classrooms over the years.”

More than 60 volunteer educators from the Maunakea Observatories, NASA, several universities and other institutions on the mainland will visit classrooms throughout Journey Week to help students not only envision themselves in STEM careers but experience the unique science happening right here on the Big Island and beyond.

Presentations can range from scientific research to talking about a fun topic in astronomy or even engineering, and for the second time since it started, this year’s program will include topics tied to curriculum educators are already teaching in their classrooms. The most requested by teachers was astronomy with a Hawaiʻi connection.

“It is so important to connect it and make it relevant to what is actually here in our islands,” said Leinani Lozi, Hawaiʻi education and engagement manager at Gemini and Journey lead coordinator. “We’re such an isolated place, and such a unique place, that sometimes even in other subjects, the content that is presented to students, if it doesn’t connect to here, if it’s about, like, skiing or something like that, you know, math problems that don’t relate, then it’s really hard for kids to grasp.”

Leinani Lozi, Hawaiʻi education and engagement manager at the International Gemini Observatory and Journey Through the Universe lead coordinator, and her husband Julien Lozi do an activity with students at Kaʻūmana Elementary in Hilo during Journey Week 2023. (NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. Pollard)

The classroom visits are meant to ignite the students’ curiosity and wonder by participating in hands-on activities and learning about real scientific phenomena. Lozi said something as simple as seeing the different colors in the light spectrum through diffraction glasses can blow their minds a little bit.


The career panels also highlight more than just the traditional route of getting a PhD and include jobs in STEM fields students might not normally think about.

This year’s panelists will also again include graduates from schools Journey comes to each year who are now well into their careers and will share their stories. Lozi said that can be powerful for the students listening: “It really hits home when they have someone who’s literally been in their shoes.”

Hilo High graduate Jerez Tehero, who is lead electrician/infrastructure technician at Keck Observatory, and Waiākea High School grad Wataru Hayashi, a doctorate candidate and graduate student researcher in plasma physics at the University of California, Irvine, and Amber Imai-Hong, an avionics engineer and program manager at Hawaiʻi Space Flight Laboratory, are among those who grew up on the Big Island returning to be part of this year’s career panels.

Astronomy is a gateway science, in that looking up at the stars is core to humanity and the origins of all people — it is a dreamy and inspirational field, Lozi said. Allowing students and teachers to connect with science being done in Hawaiʻi through Journey Through the Universe brings it closer to home.

“We can all stargaze and enjoy those things together,” she said.


The public will get the chance to come along for the journey, too, with three special events throughout the week.

The annual Community Mahalo Reception is from 5 to 8 p.m. Feb. 5 at ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, located at 600 ‘Imiloa Place in Hilo. The event is an opportunity to view astronomy demonstrations, have fun with astronomy-related activities and connect with the educators who make Journey Week possible.

Tickets are $35 and you can RSVP online.

On Feb. 6, NASA’s Brian Day and astrophysicist Kevin Grazier will give two short lectures including information about an upcoming lunar mission and how space is depicted by Hollywood. The free event from 5:30 to 8 p.m. in Room 108 at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo Science and Technology Building, located at 200 W. Kawili St. in Hilo, will be followed by stargazing on the lawn led by the UH-Hilo Astrophysics Club.

A new public event this year is set for Feb. 7 with the free screening of the documentary “Space, Hope and Charity” followed by a panel discussion and special appearance by the film’s star Charity Woodrum from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Palace Theater, located at 38 Haili St. in downtown Hilo.

NOIRLab’s Rob Sparks leads a classroom activity during the 2023 Journey Through the Universe. (NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. Pollard)

“It takes a community to raise a child, so we can’t expect to only do things in schools and for our students to be supported enough through that,” Lozi said about engaging the public as part of the Journey program. “We need to bring and be accessible to our community at large, to our families within the community as well so that when opportunities come up for students, there is more understanding of who are people behind these opportunities, behind these places.”

The program’s success throughout its 20 years has led to expansion to other parts of the Big Island and state. There is now a Journey program in North Hawaiʻi led by the Canada-France-Hawaiʻi Telescope and a program in Maui County led by the National Solar Observatory.

But none of it would have been possible without the multitude of community partners from several sectors including government, business, astronomy and higher education that continue to support and be part of the program along with the partnership with the Hawaiʻi Department of Education and the Hilo-Waiākea Complex Area.

“As we celebrate 20 consecutive years, the Journey Through the Universe partnership is the longest and most impactful collaboration that I know of for the Hilo-Waiākea Complex …,” said Hilo-Waiākea Complex Area Superintendent Esther Kanehailua.

The program’s 2024 T-shirt design emphasizes that collaboration and community involvement with an ‘ōlelo no‘eau, a proverb or wise saying, “‘A‘ohe hana nui ke alu ‘ia, no task is too big when done together by all.’”

“We don’t do this alone and we couldn’t,” Lozi said. “This program that is so big and so impactful for so many students over the generations can only be done as a community together.”

She added that the saying also honors Maunakea, the people who care for the mountain and community and all the knowledge, grounded in Hawaiʻi culture, gained and discoveries made by mauna observatories, which are then shared around the globe. That couldn’t happen without the mountain and Hawaiʻi.

  • NOIRLab Education and Engagement Manager Peter Michaud leads an activity with students demonstrating the phases of the moon during Journey Week 2023. (NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. Pollard)
  • Leinani and Julien Lozi interact with a group of students during Journey Through the Universe 2020. (NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. Pollard)
  • Astronomy educators visit a classroom in 2009 to share their joy of learning. (International Gemini Observatory/AURA/ K. Pu’uohau-Pummill)

“People from all over the world use the data from Maunakea observatories to make discoveries about different things in the cosmos, whether it’s the birth of stars or finding the oldest possible ancestral star, all the way at the beginning of the universe,” Lozi said. “Even within our observatory spaces, our staff consists of people from all over the world, and astronomy is very much a humanity endeavor. It continues to be, and it’s a connecting point as well.”

For more information about Journey Through the Universe, including a list of all of the program’s community partners and photos from past Journey Weeks, click here.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel is a full-time reporter with Pacific Media Group. He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism as a reporter, copy editor and page designer. He previously worked at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo. Nathan can be reached at [email protected]
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