How Hawai‘i Keiki Hope to Transform the Polluted Ala Wai Into Their Future Playground
Kristen Nemoto Jay
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
It’s a Monday afternoon at Ala Wai Elementary School and Lori Kwee’s fourth grade class is excited. While most 9-year-olds would be in class at this hour, Kwee’s “Golden Leaders” are on an excursion to the Ala Wai Canal. They are on a mission.
It had been a month since they were last there participating in the Genki Ala Wai Project, a collaboration between EM (Effective Microorganisms) Hawaii and the Hawaii Exemplary State Foundation. As part of their STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum, Kwee’s students — along with other fourth grade classes at Ala Wai Elementary and students from Jefferson Elementary School — are volunteering their time to help the Genki Ala Wai Project reach its goal of restoring the Ala Wai Canal by using Effective Microorganisms, or EM®.
Last November, student volunteers molded hundreds of “Genki Balls,” which they later hurled into the heavily polluted Ala Wai Canal at the designated test locations.
Genki Balls are softball-sized mudballs made from a mixture of molasses, rice or wheat bran, clay soil, water and an EM® solution. When tossed into the Ala Wai, they sink to the canal floor and slowly begin to dissolve, digesting the sludge that has built up over the decades. When mixed with the EM® solution, the Genki Balls are also expected to encourage the growth of living organisms. With continuous Genki Ball treatments, the canal should restore itself to its natural ecosystem over time.
The mission today is to conduct the second round of water testing to see if the canal water has gotten any cleaner since the last time the students were on-site. One-by-one, the students line up facing the canal along its grassy edge. They observe and wait patiently as Kwee and her fellow fourth grade teachers, Robin Paulin and Liesl Eng, carefully extract water samples with their homemade scooper fashioned from an empty Bush’s Baked Beans can at the end of a metal rod.
After pouring their collected sample from three separate canal posts into three Ziploc bags, the teachers have the students take turns staring down a clear three-foot-long turbidity tube as Paulin slowly disperses the water from the bottom. She waits until a student tells her when the water is clear enough to see the large “X” marked at the bottom of the tube. When the “X” is visible, she stops releasing the water so the students can measure and record the canal’s water clarity.
“The color changed!” exclaimed one student.
“It’s a lot clearer, yeah?” said another. “How many Genki Balls did we throw into the canal?”
“Hundreds,” chimed in another student.
“No, thousands,” corrected another.
“Maybe one day we can get a million into the canal so we can go swimming and fishing . . . and eat the fish we catch,” said another student, whose comment elicited giggles from other classmates.
The students continue to banter and tease each other until the teachers gather them around. Kwee stands before her group with a full canal sample Ziploc bag in her hand and asks them to reflect on what they had just witnessed.
“My Golden Leaders!” calls out Kwee with an excited smile.
“Yes, Mrs. Kwee,” responds her students in singsong unison.
“Think about what we just found today and then we’re going to go back to our classroom to discuss,” she says.
The students nod, line up without being told to do so and follow Kwee back to the classroom. After settling in on a bright fish-print rug that rainbows around Kwee’s classroom chair, they take turns raising their hands to share their impressions of the project’s success thus far. They recall the eventful day when they hurled their homemade Genki Balls into the canal. Nine-year-old Wyatt Tafolo-Lin recalled that day last November and said he realized the major change the canal had undergone since their last visit.
“That day was super fun,” said Tafolo-Lin. “We counted down when we were going to throw the Genki Balls and then had some competition to see who could throw it past the middle of the canal . . . One thing I thought interesting was that the Ala Wai didn’t smell today. Last time we were there, it was really smelly.”
Besides the physical fun of getting involved in their science project, Kwee’s Golden Leaders continue to share their appreciation for their new roles as scientists and activists helping to protect Hawai‘i’s waters.
“All of us want to help the environment,” chimed in 9-year-old Eseta Tatafu with a smile. “What makes our project so special is that we did this as a team, and that makes me feel really good . . . Just from today, the water looks so different than what it was when we were last at the canal. That’s really cool how it changed from what we saw.”
A million Genki Balls in the canal may seem like an ambitious goal, but the organizers from EM Hawaii believe that number is possible. With continued support from the state, stakeholders, volunteers and participating schools, the Genki Ala Wai Project could reach its dream of completely restoring the Ala Wai Canal.
“EM® have been around for a long time — it’s just [that] not many people know about it because of agrichemical companies’ advertising budget,” said EM Hawaii, LLC president Hiromichi Nago, who also serves as a technical advisor on the Genki Ala Wai Project. He and several others involved in the project gathered for a group interview prior to the Golden Leaders’ excursion.
Nago said he is personally committed to protecting the environment and is happy to see even gradual improvement to one of O‘ahu’s most polluted and toxic waterways.
“This is the safest and most effective way to help clean the Ala Wai Canal and many other places throughout Hawai‘i, and we’re already seeing amazing results,” Nago said.
EM® was developed in 1981 by Dr. Teruo Higa, an emeritus professor of horticulture at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa. After enduring decades of pesticide poisoning, Higa spent 15 years conducting research to find microorganism mixtures that were safe to humankind. In the process, he stumbled across a patch of grass that had grown exponentially from leftover microorganisms that he had discarded. Higa narrowed down the combined mixture of microorganisms that had produced the successful and safe crop reproduction. It is known today as EM®. Since its discovery, EM® has been used in more than 100 countries in areas such as agriculture, aquaculture, animal husbandry and wastewater treatment.
Nago started as a researcher for the EM Research Organization in 1995. Soon thereafter, he helped open a branch office in Hawai‘i. He took over the operation in 2006 and reorganized the company as EM Hawaii, LLC. Since then, EM Hawaii, LLC has consulted with countless businesses and organizations to reduce the need for chemicals in their water system and improve their water quality.
EM Hawaii’s collaboration with local schools began as educational workshops, promoting bokashi (rice bran fermented with EM and molasses) as a way to quickly recycle food waste into super soil and develop awareness about landfill issues in Hawai‘i. Mary Ann Kobayashi, a retired science teacher with 40 years of teaching experience, met Nago in the early 2000s while helping to design and facilitate the student curriculum and teacher training components for the STEM space simulation program at the Challenger Center Hawai‘i. Even in retirement, Kobayashi continues to help manage various Department of Education programs statewide, including serving as the school coordinator for the Genki Ala Wai Project.
“What I love about this project is that you don’t have to be a teacher to learn more about the environment,” Kobayashi said. “The children who are helping with this project are educating themselves. They are learning and seeing the results based on their actions. That is really powerful to witness.”
Besides Nago and Kobayashi, the Genki Ala Wai Project team also includes principal investigator Dr. Kenneth Kaneshiro; Fumiko Sato Chun, community and media liaison; and Ian Pelayo, who is the project manager and coordinator of the project’s science curriculum. A former science teacher, Pelayo has integrated requirements of the Hawai‘i DOE Next Generation Science Standards.
Pelayo said he’s happy to see the students apply a real-life science project into a real-world scenario, which includes learning about what they can do now to help protect and preserve the environment.
“I hope the students realize that they are capable of making changes,” Pelayo said. “They get to experience that they are able to make a difference using this project as a stepping stone to making this world a better place.”
The project has an ambitious goal: to clean up the Ala Wai Canal to a point where people can swim in it and catch fish from it within seven years. With help from students, teachers, community members and stakeholders, the Genki Ala Wai Project is expected to follow through on its goal in the near future.
Back in Kwee’s fourth grade classroom, the students are tasked with finding and recording the salinity and pH level of their water sample. Groups of five take turns filling a small beaker with a pipette before dropping in the pH or salinity drops. They compare its color on the chart provided before writing down the results. After getting Kwee’s approval, the students return to their desks so that the next group can work on their science experiment.
“This project is so amazing because it further pushes my students to know that they have their own civic responsibilities to help the environment,” said Kwee, who has been a teacher for over 30 years. She was recently named one of five national finalists for the 2019 LifeChanger of the Year Award. Kwee’s leadership and positive attitude has inspired her students to become the “Golden Leaders” and future scientists that many of them aspire to become one day.
When Kwee received the email from the Genki Ala Wai Project, asking the volunteered schools to participate, she knew immediately that the program would not only benefit her students, but also fulfill her own personal desire to help the environment.
“It’s so important for everyone to be involved when it comes to protecting the environment,” she said. “This project is so special for my students to be a part of because it lights up their imaginations and makes them think more critically [about] how to problem-solve and work together as a team.”
As the bell rings ending the school day, the students in Kwee’s class take their time packing up their belongings. All of the students make sure to say good-bye to their teacher before leaving for the day. She responds in kind with an encouraging “Thank you,” or “Good job today.”
As Kwee watches the last of her students head out the door, she wraps up her thoughts on the project, describing it as something special from which the entire community can learn and grow.
“I’m so proud of my students, just as much as I’m proud of this project,” Kwee continues. “I already can see my students feel so empowered from conducting our Ala Wai Canal experiments and findings.
“I can’t wait to see what will happen in the future, when we can one day swim and fish in the canal . . . And my students can look back and know that it was because of them that the canal is clean, that their hard work made a difference.”
EM Hawaii president Hiromichi Nago hopes to continue involving schoolchildren in the Genki Ala Wai Project. You can follow their progress at genkialawai.org. If you would like to support the project in any way, contact Nago at (808) 548-0396.
Kristen Nemoto Jay was born and raised in Waimänalo. Besides working as a freelance writer, she also tutors part-time at her alma mater, Kailua High School, and is a yoga instructor at CorePower Yoga. Kristen earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Chapman University and her master’s in journalism from DePaul University.