A UA doctoral graduate was honored by the White House on Tuesday for his work to provide area students with the opportunity to experience nature and conduct scientific research.
Benjamin Blonder, 27, founder of Sky School, was named a Champion of Change, along with 13 other environmental and conservation leaders, by the White House at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
The recipients were chosen “for their efforts to engage communities and youth in environmental stewardship and conservation,” said a White House news release.
Sky School is a residential science program hosted at the University of Arizona’s Mount Lemmon SkyCenter, where groups of Southern Arizona students in kindergarten through 12th grade attend one- to five-day-long sessions. They receive instruction and conduct research in areas that include “sky island” ecology, biology, geology and astronomy.
Blonder came up with the idea for Sky School, which started in 2012, as part of an examination for his doctoral program in ecology and evolutionary biology. He envisioned a program in which students could experience the natural environment and conduct their own science research alongside experts.
The inspiration for Sky School came from many of Blonder’s personal experiences, including his work as an environmental educator with Americorps and as a teacher of middle school science at Miles Exploratory Learning Center.
“I really got a sense that there were so many students in Tucson who weren’t getting the opportunities they deserve to experience their natural landscapes to ask hard scientific questions,” he said.
Blonder has also been active with the Sierra Club for several years and has led students from lower-income Tucson schools on outdoor trips with the organization’s Inner City Outings program.
“It’s just been incredible to see so many students who never get a chance to leave their neighborhoods, have never been on public land, never looked through a telescope for whatever economic reason, have just never had these chances, and it really inspired me to say: Well, look, let’s do better. Let’s provide these opportunities at as low a cost as possible and get these students out there so that they can have their minds opened and maybe become the next generation of leaders,” he said.
At Sky School, students work in small groups with a graduate student mentor. They brainstorm ideas, learn about research tools, and at the end of the program present their findings to their peers, teachers and other scientists.
For many of the students it’s the first time they’ve been up to Mount Lemmon, the first time they’ve gone on hikes.
“It’s a big deal for a lot of these students. A lot of them come with some fears but also a lot of excitement to see a new world that they’ve never seen before, and throughout the program it’s incredible to see how quickly their minds are changed and are opened,” Blonder said.
In recent programs, students have studied carbon fluxes in forests and looked at the different amounts of carbon coming in and out of the atmosphere from different plants and soils. They also studied how different plants are pollinated and which species pollinated them and why, Blonder said.
Alan Strauss, director of the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter, said the program is unique because it offers an authentic experience for the students.
“It has a hands-on reality to it that you don’t get out of a textbook,” Strauss said.
Students can read about plants and rocks, but it’s a much different experience when they can go up to the mountain and see what quartz or granite looks like and then conduct their own research, he said.
When surveyed about the program, students and teachers often say it’s the best field trip they’ve been on. And many of the students say the experience has piqued their interest in scientific careers, Blonder said.
When students first attend Sky School, they’re asked to come up with five words that describe a scientist, Strauss said. Common answers include Albert Einstein, pocket protector and ruler. At the end of the program, when students are asked the same question, they frequently offer one word: “Me.”