STEM Surfboard Lesson for Kids • The History and Science of Duke Kahanamoku

STEM surfboard lesson for kids


Dive into the history of Duke Kahanamoku with a history and STEM surfboard lesson for kids

You've probably heard the term "The Big Kahuna" in reference to an important person, thing, or objective. But where does this term come from? This Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we're diving into the history of the original Big Kahuna - Olympic Medalist, and the Father of Surfing - Duke Kahanamoku with this history and STEM surfboard lesson for kids of all ages!


While surf, sun, and swimming have become synonymous with the Hawaiin Islands, this has not always been the case.

At this time, Hawaii was in the midst of many cultural and governmental changes. The expansion of Christianity and foreign missionary influences were having a major impact on Hawaiian heritage and traditions such as surfing. By the end of the 19th century, foreign missionaries had almost erased surfing - or the act of riding waves - from the Hawaiian Islands.

This is where Duke Kahanamoku rides in!

The Big Kahuna was born in Haleʻākala in 1890. He was an excellent surfer, 5-time Olympic Swimming Medalist, actor, and proud representative of his native land. He and a group of fellow surfers even saved the lives of eight after a wave sank their 40-foot boat!

His Kahanamoku Kick swimming technique, superior surfing, and all-around positive passion gave Duke the opportunity to share his skills with the world. He began participating and teaching in surfing exhibitions around the world, going on to become the first person to be inducted into both the Surfing Hall of Fame and the Swimming Hall of Fame.

Sure enough, surfing started to become popular in Hawaii again! Despite the emerging designs including lighter, hollow boards, Duke preferred his own surfboards to be made from koatree using traditional Hawaiian methods, bringing his roots back into the sport. His natural abilities and love of the sport led him to become the legendary surfer known as “The Big Kahuna” and the “Father of Surfing.”

As we reflect on Duke’s life and accomplishments, let’s also look back at his culture and childhood. Duke came from a well-known family that ruled several kingdoms. This gave him a deep appreciation and understanding of Hawaiian culture, which he fought for throughout his entire life. In 1959, when Hawaii became the 50th US State, Kahanamoku was officially named the State of Hawaii Ambassador of Aloha.

There is a statue of Duke in Hawaii near the beach where his ashes were spread. He will forever be loved by the people of Hawaii and looked at as a hero. Because of his talents and passion for surfing, he is known for giving Hawaii a new dimension of international stature, stating that, "he was the soul of dignity."

He is still well loved in his native home of Hawaii, but he is also beloved by surfers everywhere. Not only was he a hero, a great person, and a pioneer-- he was just an all-around good person who fought for Hawaiian culture and surfing.

This summer when you’re hitting the waves with your surfboard, think about the origin, and thank Duke for making surfing what it is today. Surfs up!

a statue of duke kahanamoku in hawaii

Expand with an activity! 


Whether you're hitting the beach, the pool, or creating a tropical getaway in your own backyard, add a little science to your summer with you this surfing STEM lesson for kids! 

Surfboards can come in all shapes and sizes and are made out of different kinds of materials depending on the surf. Using materials you can find around the house and a little creative flair, learn about the science of surfboards with this easy DIY activity! 

a photo of small colorful foam surfboards