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A man, the moon and a volcano

Hawaii teacher Justin Brown ’09 and his robotics program students are helping NASA test technology to repel lunar dust.

Justin Brown ’09 leads the MoonRIDERS robotics program at Kealakehe High School in Hawaii. His students are helping NASA and its research partners develop and test technology designed to repel moon dust from electronics and equipment. (Photo by Glen E. Ellman)

A man, the moon and a volcano

Hawaii teacher Justin Brown ’09 and his robotics program students are helping NASA test technology to repel lunar dust.

Hawaii is a long way from the moon but closer than one might think. Justin Brown ’09 and his robotics students are using a dormant volcano on the Big Island to simulate the lunar surface.

What the tech-minded teens learn on Mauna Kea will help NASA and its research partners develop and test technology designed to repel moon dust from electronics and equipment.

Kealakehe High School’s participation in the MoonRIDERS program is the latest endeavor for a robotics program that Brown, 28, founded and nurtured into the hub for STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – learning in West Hawaii.    

“Justin has personally made the robotics program at Kealakehe High School wildly successful,” said Mark Solien, a retired geologist who worked with Brown for five years as a mentor with the Kealakehe Tiki Techs robotics program.

Solien credited Brown, who spent his first two years as a math teacher and the past four years as the high school’s career and technical education coordinator, with preparing students to become young adults capable of changing the world – and whatever lies beyond it.

Brown, however, said he’s learning as much from his students as they are from him. “I believe our robotics team philosophy has been a great lesson: Be excellent and bring out that which is excellent in others,” he said. “This is really the heart of an awesome organization, and I believe many times my team lives up to this ambiguous and ambitious standard. When we don’t, we work on it.”

Miles from the mainland

Texas is a long way from Hawaii. At TCU, Brown studied in three majors and received a bachelor of science in political science, a bachelor of arts in psychology and a bachelor of arts in music. The Arlington, Texas, native said the technical writing and document design classes he took at the university helped with the fundraising and grant-writing efforts needed to pay for the robotics team’s equipment and travel costs.

And yet, out of the more than 100 classes he took, none directly prepared him to work in robotics and STEM education.

“I remember when [Brown] first started the robotics program, he literally knew nothing about robotics,” said Matthew Buongiorno ’09, a longtime friend of Brown’s who spent several years as a colleague in Hawaii. “But he loved physics back in high school and enjoys math, so it doesn’t surprise me at all that he chose to learn about robotics and then birth a program from that newly acquired information.”

Brown also had to find a way to cross the cultural chasm that separates continental U.S. life from the Pacific island experience.

When Brown arrived at Kealakehe High six years ago, he noticed that his students, who represent a diversity of Hawaiian society, were proud of their culture – and a bit resistant to perceived outsiders. Around 40 percent of the students are a mix of Asian/Pacific Islander heritage. Many come from rural environments, and some travel up to an hour one way to get to school. The majority of the high school’s students are on the free and reduced lunch program.

“I remember my first day of school when one student stopped my introduction of the course to ask a question: ‘You’re from the mainland aren’t you?’ I paused in an effort to give a measured and drawn response,” Brown said. “While I deliberated, [the student] explained he didn’t need to learn anything from a bleeping ‘haole.’ Taken aback by his bluntness, I knew that breaking down defined cultural barriers would be crucial if I was going to be effective in helping the students learn and appreciate math.”

Instead of shying away from culture barriers, Brown created an educational exchange. They were the cultural experts, and he wanted to learn more about their world and in return he asked them to learn from his expertise in math.

“I expect the same type of respect, care and diligence I show toward their culture in response to my math class,” Brown said. “It works because it prioritizes the student in my life.”

Up to the challenge

Brown and his students logged a lot of long evenings with their latest challenge. The Tiki Tech student robotics team developed a full-scale mock-up of a Google Lunar X Prize lunar lander to integrate the necessary electronics to test an electro- dynamic dust shield.

The students will conduct mock landings complete with cold gas jets to simulate lunar conditions and dust dynamics on Mauna Kea. They will document their learning and experience in science articles and video blogs, and the test findings will be published and presented at the Pacific Symposium for Science and the Hawaii State Science Fair.

Brown’s Tiki Techs are familiar with competition. They have won more than 50 competitions and awards over 26 different platforms. The teams have traveled to competitions across Hawaii, the continental United States and Asia. Kealakehe High’s MoonRIDERS project also includes an outreach program for elementary and junior high students.

“Justin’s work on STEM education is world class,” Solien said. “Many of the graduating seniors go on to very prestigious universities, often with full scholarships, and they come back on their vacation time to mentor the current robotics students.”

Because of Brown’s work, more science jobs in the state might be held in the future by native Hawaiians, an ethnic group that has been historically underrepresented in the Big Island’s natural energy labs and on the telescopes on Mauna Kea.

“He loves seeing that former robotics students have wound up in engineering programs, received scholarships from NASA or Texas Instruments, and so on,” Buongiorno said. “I also think he does this particular type of program because he’s interested in seeing more native Hawaiian involvement in the math/science careers around the island and Hawaii as a whole.”

In the future, Brown is looking to align the school’s STEM program with industrial partners on new robotics projects. As for whether he’s mulling an eventual return to the mainland, Brown is far from making a decision.

“I really miss young professionals, museums and sports. However, my job allows me to travel quite frequently across the world doing something I really love,” he said. “Furthermore, there are worse situations to be in at 28 than teaching robotics in Hawaii and contributing to the world’s first high school lunar experiment.”