Posted 2:45 p.m. Tuesday, June 21, 2022

During a trip to Hawaii in May, one of the areas UWL students did their field research was Volcanoes National Park.

UW-La Crosse students experience science, culture during expedition to Hawaii

Many dream of a Hawaiian vacation. But for a UW-La Crosse professor and her students it was more than a dream — and more than a vacation. It was an inspiring opportunity to do research while learning about Hawaiian ecosystems, medicine and culture.

Biology Professor Jennifer Klein and 16 biology students traveled to the big island in May to take part in a variety of undergraduate research projects. 

The student teams assembled in February to begin designing their research proposals. They focused on topics that emerged from their own curiosity about Hawaiian ecosystems, the impacts of humans on the ocean environment, the use of plants in traditional Hawaiian medicine, and the converging of modern healthcare and traditional healing. 

During the trip, students did their field research in Volcanoes National Park, the Hawaii Tropical Bioreserve, and beaches at multiple Hawaii state parks. Plant specimens, medicinal herbs and ocean microplastic samples were collected and are being analyzed by returning students in ongoing research.

Not only did students experience the scientific process firsthand, but they grasped knowledge of a new environment and culture. Prior to the trip, none of the students had eaten the legendary Hawaiian noni fruit.

Klein says the expedition was designed to mimic course-embedded undergraduate research, a strategy used to engage entire groups of students in mentored research experiences.

“Undergraduate research experiences are invaluable for building skillsets and developing aptitudes required for science-related careers,” she explains.

Klein says COVID prevented students from pursuing research in faculty labs. She says most seniors who went on the expedition participated to experience authentic, independent research for the first time.

“For many students, a major takeaway was simply being able to develop and pursue their own project,” she says.

Not only did students experience the scientific process firsthand, but they grasped knowledge of a new environment and culture. One UWL senior says the experience of Hawaii apart from the science was critical.

The legendary Hawaiian noni fruit.

“Interacting with a variety of locals at farmer's markets and around Kona gave me some insight into local Hawaiian culture,” says Tristan Pittman. “Listening to locals playing music, jamming with them, and speaking with them between songs also showed me some contrast between the Hawaiian mindset toward music and that of mainland culture.” 

Another student said she benefitted from meeting new people who shared their personal and career stories.

“Hearing others’ stories about how they got to where they are and how they have adapted over the years really put my wants and needs into perspective,” says senior Madelyn Kruser. “Coming into this experience, I was unsure about what I wanted to do post-college, but now I have realized that there is more out there for me that I would enjoy and be willing to pursue."

The students also saw the expedition improve their sense of self-efficacy, confidence and self-reliance — areas of personal growth rarely experienced in a traditional classroom, but ones that easily occur when studying abroad. 

Klein says many students had never navigated airline travel, swam or snorkeled in the ocean, or hiked across the crater of a volcano or in a rainforest. None had eaten the legendary Hawaiian noni fruit until the visit. 

“With encouragement and support from those around them, everyone was able to adopt the right amount of challenge to experience growth,” she says.