Guest Blog: The BLAsT Class Learns to "Move it Like Moana"

Posted by Nicole Kiefert
on Thursday, August 31, 2017

By David Collicott and Gaby Loredo 

Moana waits in her boat while the BLAsT Class learns how to point out and sing the four main constellations in the sky. If we didn't show enough spirit, Dr. Slater made us repeat it until we did. // Photo credit: Samuel I. Beard, Jr.

Astronomy in Moana? That’s what we thought. But Dr. Stephanie Slater gave us a lesson on the movie’s traditional Polynesian water navigation and its relation to the stars. Through the stars rise and set times, their altitude, and their relation to the stars around them, the ancient navigators were able to tell their location with great accuracy and purposely move from tiny island to tiny island in the vast Pacific Ocean.

Dr. Slater did an amazing job engaging us by combining her experience with Polynesian celestial navigation with the Disney movie, Moana. Her presentation was full of information, but it was also very personal. Dr. Slater is very passionate about everything she has done in her life, from working to increase diversity in STEM fields to being a K12 teacher to her 22-acre sweet potato farm in Hawaii! An MIT graduate, she has spent years in Hawaii building an extremely close relationship with Polynesian astronomers and cultural figures who have cultivated a great admiration for different Polynesian cultures. And in only an afternoon, she shared what she knew with us. 

The most important lesson she taught us is that there are three things that a navigator needs to know before becoming a navigator. The first one is piko i meaning "being able to see the heavens." The second is piko o meaning "knowing how to see my place in the world.” The last one is piko a meaning "understanding how the world changes because of my actions."  

Standing around the stellar reference points, which showed a wonderfully simple symmetry, we learned how to adjust the boat to face the direction we wanted to go. // Photo credit: Samuel I. Beard, Jr.
Just like Maui says in Moana, it is true that real navigators can only tell where they’re going by knowing where they’ve been. When the navigators of old went looking for other islands, they didn’t sleep on the trip. And the trips could last about a month! The reason they can't sleep is because they always have to know how the sky has appeared for the whole journey. Once you lose your bearings, you're lost! And in the ocean, being lost most likely means you’re dead.

The Polynesian navigators divided stars among four constellations that each stretched all the way across the sky from north to south. He Ka, the first constellation, represented what seemed to be a little dinky scoop. Of all things, why would they choose a little dinky scoop as their constellation? Well, this scoop is used to bail the water out of a boat. If you’re out at sea, you definitely want to be able to do that! It just goes to show that even the littlest thing in our lives can be incredibly important and essential to our lives. In the spring, He Iwi comes out and it is the backbone of a gecko. He Makau, the third constellation, is a fish with a hook. You know that hook if you know our constellations. It’s Scorpius. And it’s also the magic fish hook that the demigod Maui was seeking in the movie! (By the way, if you haven't noticed, all of their constellations are named after things related to living on the ocean.) The last constellation - He Lupe - represents the social skills to navigate.

The hand gestures in Moana made more sense after Dr. Slater described how our latitude affected the angle and relative setting times of certain pairs of stars like Castor and Pollux. // Photo credit: Samuel I. Beard, Jr.
Once we had all the main constellations shown to us and their significance explained, we had to point them out and sing them for Dr. Slater. And if we didn’t get it right or if we didn’t show enough spirit, we had to keep going. That’s because a navigator has to know the sky!

Navigating – or wayfinding – requires someone not only to have a deep understanding of the stars but also to be a great leader who helps others and solves problems. As our lesson ended, we were delighted that Dr. Slater came to share her passion for the Polynesian culture and celestial navigation with us. And it made all of us passionate to teach others what she taught us. 

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