Like many college students, Sherilyn Wee didn’t know what she wanted to do for a career.

She was majoring in Chinese and economics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa when she took a class that helped her find her answer.

The course focused on the economics of climate change. Wee was tasked with creating policies to address sea level rise, for instance, by studying seawalls or writing hypothetical speeches for the governor.

“It was really about working together with other students,” said Wee, who now works for UH’s Economic Research Organization’s Energy Policy and Planning Group while pursuing a Ph.D. in Economics. “It provides that bridge from science (to) how it impacts different people.”

Sherilyn Wee is now working on a project that looks at the economic impacts of electric vehicles in Hawaii.
Sherilyn Wee is working on a project that looks at the economic impacts of electric vehicles in Hawaii. Marina Riker/Civil Beat

That was in 2009, and Wee was enrolled in the first UH class that used principles from Science Education for New Civic Engagements and Responsibilities, which aims to bridge the gap between science and solving community problems.

Now Hawaii has been named the first “model” SENCER state in the nation by the National Center for Science and Civic Engagement.

SENCER courses are taught at hundreds of schools nationwide, on campuses ranging from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

Hawaii is a “model” because students from across the state — in both universities and community colleges — are applying their classroom learning directly to solving problems in the community, said Eliza Jane Reilly, the deputy executive director of SENCER.

“Hawaii is super conscious about sustainability,” Reilly said. “You create educational institutions to serve the greater good, not to just get people jobs and serve them individually.”

For instance, Wee recently produced a UH report analyzing how installing solar panels affects home values. She found that adding a solar system to a typical Hawaii home increases the value by $34,000.

“(The first SENCER class was) the very reason that I’m doing what I’m doing now,” Wee said.

University of Hawaii. McCarthy Mall. 2 sept 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Hundreds of students have taken SENCER classes at UH-Manoa. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In Hawaii, many SENCER classes focus on social, indigenous and natural sciences. Classes are offered at Kapiolani Community College, Windward Community College, and UH-Hilo, as well as at UH Manoa.

Some of the class projects have focused on include removing invasive algae from Maunalua Bay, sharing traditional canoe building techniques between Hawaiian and Micronesian communities and developing economic policies for environmental sustainability.

Other classes deal with developing public policies to address issues like climate change in Micronesia or lowering greenhouse gases. Students are asked to form groups to work on solutions.

Denise Eby Konan, dean of UH-Manoa’s College of Social Sciences, estimates several hundred students have taken courses in the program.

The university is working to design a two-year program for Native Hawaiian students in the College of Social Sciences.

“We understand the science from a scientific perspective, but how do we put that into action and how do we make that benefit the community?” said Konan. “Looking at science with an eye towards social change, social responsibility, gives us the tools.”

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