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Uncovering a buried treasure

Kona middle school students get hands-on exploring a geology treasure trove.

Geology club students stepped into a whole new world of geology and gems as they worked with the Hawai‘i Keiki Museum to unveil a forgotten trove of geological treasures.

Above: HTA Kona middle schooler Vanessa G. shows off two nodes that she has water polished to a shine. And boxes and boxes of geodes waiting to be sorted and finished. Below: Students learned how to classify rocks: Can you see the difference between these? They are a geode, a thunder egg, and a node.

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School’s out for the day, but Hawai‘i Technology Academy student Vanessa G. is just rolling up her sleeves and getting started. Arriving at the cavernous workshop behind the Hawai‘i Keiki Museum, she can’t wait to sit down and start water polishing geodes. There are also boxes and boxes of geological wonders to explore. 

“It’s always hard to leave,” she says. “There’s just so much to look at.”

She grabs a flashlight and shines it over the surfaces of the cut geodes – they fluoresce and sparkle with a blue light. 

“They’re just magical,” she says. “Some of the geodes look like ice inside; some of them look like they’ve been hit by lightning.” 

Vanessa and her HTA middle school geology club peers have spent the semester helping museum staff uncover what is akin to a buried treasure. The treasure includes 4 million-year-old fossil trilobites, delicate quartz crystals, geodes with sparkling interiors, and stunningly delicate picture jasper. The rocks, which all hail from the mainland, have sat in Kona for more than three decades — first at a local school and then in a residential garage. Over the years they gathered a layer of dust and your typical assortment of garage wildlife, from geckos to centipedes.

Last year, Maverick Kawamoto offered the collection to Dana McLaughlin, the founding force behind the Hawai‘i Keiki Museum. While the museum focuses on Hawaiian natural history, McLaughlin saw an opportunity in the mainland specimens.

Standing by the new geology touch table in the museum, she picks up an eye-catching chunk of snowflake obsidian; then she points to another rock on the table.

“That’s obsidian from this island,” she says. “People think we don’t have obsidian here, but it can form under the right conditions when lava cools very, very slowly. That’s pretty cool.”

Whether it’s the crystal geometry of quartz or the cave stalagmite that looks just like an ice cream cone, the rocks are helping to open a window into curiosity for young keiki. But McLaughlin is constantly on the lookout for ways to add new opportunities for Kona’s older students, too.

“There is a common sentiment that it’s hard to have a STEM career on the Big Island,” McLaughlin says. “That dampens enthusiasm for STEM learning. But science is literally all around us on this island, and there are many opportunities for island keiki to become leaders in STEM industries — right here. It’s important that we show them that opportunities here on the Big Island not only exist, they are exciting.”

When the rock collection arrived at the museum — three large truckloads of it — she reached out to HTA to see if students would be interested in helping to uncover the trove. On the fly, they learned how to classify the rocks, and sorted them accordingly. They got hands-on polishing the cut surfaces of the geodes. And they built an eight-foot rock tumbler to shape and smooth out the rocks’ exteriors. The tumbler came together using five old car tires, a pasta machine motor, and loads of ingenuity. Once it was running, McLaughlin and the students set about testing what grit would work best to smooth the rocks.

“These experiences are so important for our haumāna because it gets them into the community,” says HTA Kona campus director Makala Paakaula. “They are able to offer regular help to our partners while also feeding student passions and learning.”

Inspired by the students’ enthusiasm, the museum has now opened the collection to the public. On Fridays, paying visitors can venture into the workshop behind the scenes to explore and even turn their hand to water polishing, which it turns out is a rather zen-like experience.

“One teenager sat here for an hour and a half just polishing,” McLaughlin says. “Most everybody has an interest in rocks at some level. Their eyes light up and right away they’re drawn to the crystals, or to the rock structure, or to the tumbler and how you turn rocks into gems. It’s amazing to see the connections that are made.”

Hawai‘i Keiki Museum built a large rock tumbler to smooth out the surfaces of the geodes. The rocks tumble inside old car tires. Geology club teacher Mrs. Learned and her students helped with an experiment to find what type of grit worked best in the process.