The stars blaze out of a sky darker than ever can be seen from central Tucson atop the 9,157-foot-high summit of Mt. Lemmon in the Catalina Mountains northeast of the city. The wind blows colder through the pine trees, the air is thinner and free of the smells of fast food and car exhaust, and apart from the wind, nights are almost silent.
Originally a U.S. Air Force outpost equipped with high-power long-range radar sets, the site atop Mt. Lemmon played an important role as part of about 200 radar stations along U.S. coastlines and borders, scanning the skies for potential enemy bombers and missiles during the Cold War.
Since 1970, the Mt. Lemmon Field Station has served a gentler purpose: University of Arizona astronomers and national and international research teams have turned its six telescopes to searching the skies.
Operating under permit from the U.S. Forest Service, the UA Steward Observatory launched the Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter in 2008, aiming to utilize the facility’s astronomical observing equipment and extraordinary location atop a sky island for public outreach and education purposes.
Literally islands in the sky, Southwestern mountaintops are an ecological reservoir, supporting a diverse array of plants and animals and providing a unique setting for research and education.
“We have all these great resources in the College of Science that we can bring to the table because of this unique sky island environment where the SkyCenter is located,” said SkyCenter director Alan Strauss.
Strauss envisions a multi-day educational experience at the SkyCenter, a “sky school” at which students could be immersed in natural sciences and astronomy.
“We had been mulling over how to make this place become an accessible resource for teachers and students, both at the UA and area K-12 schools,” Strauss said.
Enter Pacifica Sommers, a fourth-year doctoral student in the UA department of ecology and evolutionary biology.
A former BioMe fellow trained in the science education of K-12 students, Sommers is a certified trip leader with Tucson’s Inner City Outings, a national organization under the umbrella of the Sierra Club that seeks to provide children and families from urban areas the opportunity to explore nature.
“I think it’s incredibly important to get kids outside,” Sommers said. “Not all kids have that opportunity, especially now with so many electronic gadgets; even just backyard playing isn’t something kids always do.”
Sommers decided to try to turn trips with Inner City Outings into a pilot project for a potentially larger, future SkyCenter program.
Through the NASA Space Grant Graduate Fellowship Program, which aims to provide graduate students with the opportunity to develop an outreach project that furthers interest and knowledge in areas related to NASA research, Sommers received funding for her proposal to partner with Inner City Outings to take elementary and middle school students on overnight field trips to the SkyCenter.
This fall, Strauss and Sommers conducted the first three overnight trips to the SkyCenter with students from Tucson-area schools.
“The trips are hands-on, outdoor science experiences that a lot of these kids would never have,” Strauss said. Many of the students that participate in Inner City Outings trips have never had the opportunity to leave the city.
For each trip, the students, along with science teachers and chaperones, met on a Saturday morning and boarded cars and vans bound for Mt. Lemmon.
Along the way, the group stopped at lookouts to explore. Sommers created a trip curriculum to allow the students to explore all aspects of natural science through activities such as scavenger hunts as they journeyed up the mountain.
“The sky islands provide this opportunity to incorporate geology, ecology and astronomy in this integrative place,” Sommers said. “You can see the basin and range formations, you can see the mica and the stripes in the rocks, you can see the change from cactus to Douglas fir trees and ponderosa pines. It’s a really cool nexus of many disciplines of science.”
At the first stop, the students were given balloons to blow up and measure, and made predictions about what would happen to the balloon as they continued up the mountain. “Some students think the balloons will expand, some think they will contract,” said Strauss. “And I know that about 30 percent of the balloons will probably pop, because they’re kids with balloons.”
Sommers sees her trips as a stepping stone that could lead to development of larger programs at the SkyCenter and perhaps eventually a complete “sky school” experience.
The first three trips were funded by combinations of grants and fundraising from Inner City Outings and grants to Safford Elementary Magnet School’s outdoor science program. “We’re looking for funding to make more trips possible in the future, and more sustainable sources of funding so we can actually make these experiences more regularly available,” Sommers said.
Word of mouth about the program already has initiated more trips: Strauss now is coordinating with teachers at area high schools to organize single and multi-day trips to the SkyCenter.
“We’re trying to form bridges to the science teachers and the students in our community so that they see the SkyCenter, the department of astronomy and the UA as a resource – that we’re not buried behind the figurative red-brick wall of the University,” Strauss said.
Sommers’ trips and other extraordinary opportunities for public education and exploration exemplify the ways in which a land-grant institution can give back to the Tucson community, the state of Arizona and the country, Strauss said.
The kids experienced science in action at the SkyCenter, watching astronomers at work in the observatories, and Strauss stepped in to teach the students astronomy and how to select targets for observation and operate the telescope themselves.
The recent addition of a software program called “The Sky” allowed the students to operate the telescope themselves by entering simple commands such as “find moon” and then click “go to.”
“If they see something interesting in the software display on the monitor, they can zoom in. They can then go on the Internet to find out what it is, and they can send the telescope there and really self-direct that exploration,” Strauss said. “It’s transformational for them.”
At night, there is almost no sound in the SkyCenter’s dorm rooms: no hum of electrical appliances, no distant rumble of traffic, no noisy neighbors. After the daylong journey each group made up the mountain and an evening exploring the stars through the observatory telescope, the kids finally fell asleep listening to the surrounding silence, broken only by the whisper of an occasional mountain wind.