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Campus & Community

Cook Islands' first science expo

BYU–Hawaii professors and student discuss their work and experience with conservation in the Cook Islands

Learning intake from the expo

Michael Ligaliga, assistant professor in the Faculty of Culture, Language & Performing Arts, said as a professor in Pacific Studies, attending the Cook Islands Science Expo during the Fall 2022 Semester drove him into revisiting what “we did in the past to help students understand how tying traditional knowledge and modern knowledge is impacting us in the present and going to inform the future.”

Andrea George, a sophomore from Aitutaki, Cook Islands, majoring in marine biology and presenter at the Expo, said, “There's work to be done in the gardens, and I'm excited because I can see a wave of interest in connecting back to how our ancestors would conserve. There's a generation of scientists coming, and they are going to be incredible.”

Spencer Ingley, assistant professor in the Faculty of Sciences, said it would be interesting to build a space on campus where using traditional knowledge from the Cook Islands would be combined with different scientific projects on campus. He said it would be useful to have a space where the students and professors can bring together traditional with scientific knowledge on plants and ecosystems and show that they are compatible.

David Bybee, director of the Kumuwaiwai Center for Sustainability and Professor in the Faculty of Sciences, said, “[The Expo] helped us expand both outreach opportunities, and also research opportunities and collaborating with people ... We also got to meet influential government leaders who have invited us to come back for their next Science Expo in two years.”

The first Science Expo on climate change gathered 20 different organizations in Rarotonga, the Cook Islands, from Oct. 11 to 20. Bybee, Ligaliga, Ingley, and George represented BYU–Hawaii at the expo.

Embracing traditional knowledge 

Ingley explained “Climate Change Cook Islands [is] a government agency that works under the Office of the Prime Minister. The agency is responsible for coordinating, carrying out and designing projects that relate to climate change and resiliency. They were looking for people who were finding synergy between traditional knowledge and science.”

Bybee added, “[In] three days, we presented to 1,500 students and the country’s top-level administration.”

For the Expo, the coral fragmentation Bybee did with his students during a research class in the Winter 2022 Semester was presented. “We had the coral hand saw there, and we showed them how we used it. Nobody there was doing any of that,” said Bybee.

Ligaliga said, “In his opening remarks, the Prime Minister [Mark Brown] talked about Cook Islands' culture as a science culture. In other words, he told the children in high school and primary school not to forget the synergy between indigenous knowledge and science, because that's what our ancestors taught us.”

Ligaliga said the prime minister explained the country's youth need "to be anchored in their cultural identity and that’s the message the prime minister wanted the students to know.” Prime Minister Brown said it's essential to study what's out there in the world, shared Ligaliga, but explained it also needs to be grounded in the culture. Youth need to see their indigenous culture through the lens of science, said Ligaliga.

Ingley said while being there, “We were able to do some outreach work, engaged with the community, interviewed and met with different non-government organizations and government organizations.”

George said, “During the week, we had the opportunity to go with Korero O’te Orau, an environmental local NGO, and its chairperson, Dr. Teina Rongo, to remove crown-of-thorns starfish from the reef because of how invasive those are.” She said of the NGO, “They're focused on traditional knowledge, the young generation and how to mold the youth into leaders - but mainly to connect the land and sea to our ancestors.”

Rongo showed how his work translated the valuable traditional ecological knowledge of the kupuna and fishermen into meaningful scientific data, said Bybee.

Another outreach they did in the Cook Islands was to see some of the restorations made in the forest, said Bybee. “Dr. Ingley got to do some drone work, in the mountains, to help a local agency where they removed invasive species and did a sort of traditional farming practices that are not practiced anymore,” he said.

Click here for a multimedia version of the story.