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Palamanui may offer marine science degree


An associate degree in marine science is one of the programs that could be offered when Hawaii Community College — Palamanui is up and running next year.

Kenneth Fletcher, University of Hawaii Center at West Hawaii director, told residents in Waikoloa Wednesday night that many opportunities exist to link higher education with businesses.

“Students are interested in marine science and oceanography,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher said he would like to create an associate degree in sustainable engineering, with specializations in energy, waste management, food security and water quality.

“We have people saying Palamanui is an area we could take entirely off the grid,” Fletcher said. He spoke at a talk story hosted by the nonprofit Community Enterprises. Fletcher also said the nursing program in West Hawaii is under review because of high dropout rates.

Future partnerships could include enterprises such as astronomy research, natural energy generation and storage, the tourism industry and the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority.

“I see so much potential here with all the synchronicity,” he said. “I have people wanting to sit down and talk with me every day. It’s overwhelming.”

Fletcher said the traditional higher education model for the chosen few has been supplanted by a modern reality of students taking as long as seven years to graduate, students who are mothers and older people returning to take classes.

The new center is in some ways symbolic in an era when education has moved beyond the traditional classroom, he said.

John Buckstead said he was encouraged by Fletcher’s business background, but said the ideas now have to be pushed into the sphere of reality.

“There’s got to be a group that drives this, that gets behind post-high school education to push this with our legislators,” Buckstead said. “The challenge as an administrator is, how do I harness this synchronicity? How do we get everyone together to drive this thing?”

Former Kohala Councilman Pete Hoffmann told Fletcher that the center must demonstrate new and improved programs and offerings if it is to keep the island’s high school graduates from going to college off-island. Until it demonstrates such innovation, the center will be under the shadow of the University of Hawaii at Hilo, Hoffmann said.

“Under any circumstances, I don’t think we’ve been properly served. Palamanui, symbol that it may be, holds a hope that we may be better served in the future,” said Hoffmann, who expressed disgust at past neglect of West Hawaii by the university system.

Concrete columns and foundations were poured at Palamanui last month. Structural framing, plumbing and wiring are slated next for the site, which is just north of mile marker 91 on Queen Kaahumanu Highway. General contractor F&H Construction began work on the site in November.

The first phase of the project is 24,000 square feet of educational space, with laboratories, classrooms, library, kitchen space and common areas that can serve as many as 700 students. Two additional phases planned for the future would build the center out to where it could serve twice that number.

Interviewed after the talk story, Fletcher revealed that the nursing program in West Hawaii is currently under review. Administrators at University of Hawaii Center at West Hawaii will examine curriculum and student characteristics to try to find why dropout rates have been between 40 and 70 percent over the last three years. In a pause in enrollment, a new cohort of students will not be added in the fall 2015 semester, to minimize the number of students who would be disrupted by any future changes, Fletcher said.

Students already enrolled in the program will continue to take classes as normal. Fletcher stressed that the nursing program is not ending, but being examined for possible adjustment.

“We really need to look at it because the attrition rate is so much higher than UH-Hilo,” he said.

The two-year nursing program normally takes on a cohort of 10 students each year. It is too early to say what changes might be made to the program, Fletcher said.

Fletcher will also join West Hawaii legislators at a Community Enterprise forum Tuesday at the Makaeo Events Pavilion at Old Kona Airport Park. Fletcher will give an update on educational opportunities and potential future programs at Palamanui. The forum is scheduled from 5:30 to 8 p.m.