Be Prepared To Explore

(from left) Mitchell Atebara, Allie Jones (holding a portrait of astronaut Ellison Onizuka), David Kau, Dr. Neal Atebara, Nolan Kawahara, Micah Branner and Abraham Marsh (with a photo of the Challenger crew)

If you asked the average person to describe the Boy Scouts, the words would come out in the sepia tones of the 1950s: men with pomaded hair assisting young boys with pitching a tent, baiting a hook and building a fire. It is a quaint view of America full of honor codes and helping old ladies across the street.

One would think it would not connect well with the modern youth and today’s education system that is focused on the sciences, but there you would be wrong. Long before President Obama made STEM a focus in schools nationwide, the Boy Scouts were training youths in the ways of astronomy, chemistry and electricity. And by long before, they mean by about 100 years. The outdoor experiences were just the carrot to attract the youths to the world of science and the discipline of being a Scout.

Troop members practice different types of knots used in canoe building

“The key method we like for delivering our program is through the outdoors. Camping, exploration and outdoor skills are still certainly part of what Boy Scouts are all about, but it is also about a lot more than that,” says Jeff Sulzbach, the Scout executive and CEO for Aloha Council. “We teach young people to think about the world around them in ways that are unique, we teach them about service, about being a citizen, about helping other people in their daily lives. Every young person takes the Scout Oath that talks about helping other people at all times, and we do that through lots of different ways at all the different levels.

“Thirty percent of all our curriculum has a STEM component to it, and as we were looking forward to what our Makahiki could become, that accentuating the STEM program and shining a light on how Scouts learn in many different ways would be enlightening to the community, and a great service to the community, as well.”

Cub Scout Carsen Yamamoto focuses intently on building his robot

While changing the name of its annual day of service from Makahiki to Ellison Onizuka Day of Exploration (Saturday at Blaisdell Exhibition Hall), Aloha Council also is hoping to accomplish three goals: Serve the public directly with a day of STEM learning and interacting, promote the Boy Scouts and the good they provide for young men and women alike, and to honor Hawaii’s most famous Eagle Scout, astronaut Ellison Onizuka.

“Once we landed on the idea of the focus on STEM, then we thought about who best represents that, and Ellison Onizuka was an Eagle Scout from the Big Island, and then took his passion for science and exploration to NASA and became an astronaut,” say Sulzbach, who has been the head of Hawaii’s 11,000 Scouts for four years now. “It connects the STEM side of it, but also that sense of discovery and exploring the world, and in the case of Ellison, the world beyond us. He really is the ultimate explorer when you think about what he and other astronauts do.”

Members of a winning Aloha Council-sponsored VEX IQ Robotics team NEAL ATEBARA PHOTOS

Onizuka hailed from Kealakekua on Hawaii island, a town that was too small to have a Scout troop, so he did not discover Boy Scouts until he was already a teenager. He threw himself into it, making up for lost time and achieving the rank of Eagle Scout. He used the lessons he learned to help guide his way to NASA, where he became a flight specialist and logged a total of 74 hours in space before tragically losing his life in the Challenger explosion in January 1986.

“He often credited Scouting as helping him to form who he was, being a leader, an explorer and being brave and service to the country,” says Dr. Neal Atebara, a fellow Eagle Scout from Hawaii island. “Not only is he a Eagle Scout and a famous astronaut, he also was a really good guy.”

Onizuka’s brother Claude echoes Atebara’s thoughts, and gave his opinion on what Onizuka would have thought of his name being attached to Scouting’s biggest event of the year.

Robotics from last year’s Makahiki

“He credited his success to Scouting — it played a big part in his life in getting him to become an astronaut,” says Claude, who is retired from American Savings Bank in Kona. “He would have been surprised at this honor, but he was never out for glory. He just wanted to share his knowledge and experiences with everyone.”

In changing an event as longstanding as the Makahiki, they knew they wanted to do it right, which is why they brought in Atebara to oversee the change. He has been involved with the state Science and Engineering Fair both as a participant and organizer. He took first prize in 1982, and he wanted to make an event worthy of the Onizuka name.

First, he moved it from Ala Moana Beach Park to Blaisdell Exhibition Hall, fixing any weather issues by moving it indoors and any parking issues with its dedicated parking lot. Next, he changed the content of the event — it used to be lots of pitching tents and camping exhibits — to items more in line with what the parenting public is looking for in a Saturday activity.

“Scouting is about service to the community, so we are making a super-concerted effort to make this a community event. We are considering this a service project by giving STEM enrichment programs to the public,” says Atebara, who is a retina surgeon by day. “We chose this because young families are super hungry for STEM activities.”

There will be several components, but the biggest one is led by the Scouts themselves, with 70 different booths for each troop to show off their STEM knowledge.

“STEM has always been a part of our curriculum, all the way back to 1910 when we had programs with a focus on the sciences,” says Sulzbach. “Today science is more important than it has ever been, and we need to be focusing on this for our Scouts and how they should be preparing for their future to have a well-rounded education.”

The hands-on experiments run the gamut from electric motors you make with just paper clips and batteries, to light bulbs that burn the graphite from mechanical pencils and an augmented reality sandbox, where students can understand topography, water conservation and ecology by moving around sand that is lit up by a projector according to the elevation of the sand.

There will be an Oobleck pool that acts like quicksand, and hovercrafts made from old CDs, a water bottle cap and a balloon, and 65 other nerdy endeavors.

“This is the epitome of what this event is about, taking stuff that you have laying around and you kind of MacGyver it, make it into something useful using your ingenuity,” says Atebara.

The second component of the day will involve 22 scientists from around the state showing off their particular expertises in workshops, ranging from heart and brain dissections, rocket science, fingerprinting and parachute design. There will be demonstrations on volcanoes, earthquakes and identifying fossils.

Keeping with tradition, it still will offer classic Scouting competitions like the Pinewood Derby, but it also will feature an updated version with robotic cars for power races. Outdoors, there will be a two-story climbing wall, elevated ropes course and the Scout rope bridge.

Finally, from the Discovery Channel, there will be a performance by Mr. Wizard IV, Steven “Jake” Jacobs, who demonstrates how basic scientific principles work in a fun and entertaining show.

And the price for a day full of science and discovery? Free, as it is sponsored by the Scouts to serve the public and show off all that Scouting can do for boys and girls. Now, starting in eighth grade, it offers the Venturing Program that focuses on hobbies and the outdoors, and the Exploring Program that is more career-focused. They are both open to everyone.

The fun-filled and educational day should bring a good crowd and hopes are that teaching kids about what all the Boy Scouts can do for them will draw more kids to the programs and make the country a better place in the future.

“Scouting is a lot of camping and hiking, but that is not the actual mission of the Scouts,” says Atebara, who is an assistant Scoutmaster. “The actual mission is to prepare young people to make ethical and moral decisions over their lifetimes, and Scouting uses outdoor tools to challenge them so that we have good leaders and citizens for the future.”

Aloha Council Boy Scouts of America’s Ellison Onizuka Day of Exploration is set for Saturday (April 29), 9 a.m.-3 p.m., at Blaisdell Exhibition Hall. Admission is free. Visit the Ellison Onizuka Day of Exploration Facebook page.