Every now and then you may see a group of children hanging out in the Catalina Mountains with UA researchers, investigating the local ecology and geology. They are part of UA doctoral student Benjamin Blonder's Sky School – a program he created two years ago that has earned him national attention.
Blonder, who just finished his doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology, founded Sky School in 2012 to give lower-income children the chance to step outside their urban settings and learn about nature alongside experts.
It's a simple yet life-changing idea that caught the eye of the White House, which has named Blonder a Champion of Change. A ceremony was scheduled for 9 a.m. EDT on Tuesday.
Blonder, along with 13 other conservation leaders, is being recognized "for their efforts to engage communities and youth in environmental stewardship and conservation," the White House announced in a statement issued Friday. "Through innovative approaches, they are creating opportunities for the next generation of Americans to take part in outdoor recreation and physical activity."
Sky School's inspiration comes from Blonder's time in AmeriCorps, when he worked as an environmental educator in central Idaho.
"There I realized how transformative outdoor science education could be for students who rarely had the opportunity to leave their neighborhoods, visit public land or interact with scientists," said Blonder, who is the education coordinator for Sky School. "I wanted to inspire the next generation of scientific and conservation leaders by connecting our youth to our natural environment."
Blonder's peers at Sky School nominated him for the honor.
Alan Strauss, director of the UA's Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter, thought Blonder's idea had a lot of potential. The two began working together, recruiting more participants, including Pacifica Sommers, a UA doctoral candidate in ecology and evolutionary biology and NASA Space Grant Graduate Fellow. Soon the idea was up and running, based at the Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter.
Since 2012, the program has blossomed, bringing more than 600 children from grades kindergarten through 12 to the mountaintop to participate in scientific inquiry into topics such as ecology, geology, biology and astronomy. These students design and carry out their own original science research experiments under the guidance of UA graduate students.
Students also have the opportunity to spend the night on the mountaintop, gazing through the largest public observation telescope in the Southwest, far above the city lights.
"When Ben first approached me with the idea of a residential science school at the summit of Mount Lemmon, it resonated strongly with my own desires to increase access to the SkyCenter for local youth," Strauss said. "The opportunity for students to form mentoring relationships with graduate student scientists and engage in authentic field-based scientific inquiry has had an impact on students who may not previously have envisioned themselves as scientists."
Now school buses filled with children wind their way up the Mount Lemmon summit on a regular basis – something that brings a smile to Blonder's face.
"Each program brings the chance for a student to see their first galaxy, make their first scientific discovery or go hiking for the first time. Sharing these experiences is by far the most rewarding part of Sky School for me. Building the Sky School has been a long journey, and I'm honored to be able to share the work we are doing in Arizona with the nation," Blonder added. "A few days after returning from Washington, I'll be on Mount Lemmon once again, welcoming our next group of students."
The UA had an honoree on last year's Champions of Change list too. Researcher Dolores Hill, co-leader of the OSIRIS-Rex Target Asteroids! program, was recognized at the White House for her leadership in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics research. Target Asteroids! allows amateur astronomers to observe near-Earth asteroids and provide their data, such as asteroids' locations, speeds and trajectories, to scientists.