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Bonnie Henry: Astronaut inspires down to earth camp

Bonnie Henry: Astronaut inspires down to earth camp

Tucson kids experience plenty of adventure during the program honoring Laurel Clark, who died aboard the Columbia in 2003

So what did your kids do last week? Play in the pool? Joystick endlessly through their video games? Complain that there's nothing to do?

Meet 20 kids who think otherwise.

On a day that topped out at 100 degrees in the shade, this bunch is taking soil samples and harvesting saguaro fruit out in the desert.

Before the afternoon is done, they'll stick thermometers into the baking ground to gauge its temperature, gather saguaro ribs to make poles for knocking down saguaro fruit and squeal with delight when the fruit thuds into buckets held beneath the towering cacti.

Later on, they'll try to spot owls and bats and gaze through a telescope into the heavens before turning in for the night.

It's all part of the Laurel Clark Earth Camp, a two-week collaboration between the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the University of Arizona College of Science.

For the past 10 days, 20 kids, grades 7-9, have been studying everything from aquatic invertebrates atop Mount Lemmon to the stars visible from Kitt Peak.

They've also spent considerable time on the desert floor, learning about water conservation.

"It definitely made a difference in how I view water," says Diana Vargas, 15, who attended the first Earth Camp last year and is back again, this time as a counselor.

In addition to increasing her awareness of water — or the dearth of it — the camp boosted her leadership skills.

"It gave me so much confidence," says Diana, who will be a sophomore at Amphitheater High School in the fall.

Lindsey Carlson, 13, is also a returning camper-turned-counselor.

"I learned about water and how it's all connected," says Lindsey, who is home-schooled.

Think of it all slopping around inside a bucket, says Lindsey. "A gallon bucket represents all the water in the world. A tablespoon is fresh water. One drop is drinkable."

Appreciating the world's resources came second nature to the camp's namesake, astronaut Laurel Clark.

A day before she and six other astronauts perished in the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster, Clark e-mailed her family about the wonders of the Earth she saw below.

Searching for a way to honor her daughter, part-time Tucsonan Margory Brown began meeting with friends, neighbors and administrators of the Desert Museum.

The result: Earth Camp.

"It takes a team for something like this to happen, and Laurel was a team person," says Brown, who had a hand in picking this year's crop of campers.

"Math and science have fallen so much in this country, and this is one way to stimulate these kids to get interested in these areas," says Brown.

While the cost of tuition is $750 for the two weeks, all of the campers are on full- or part-time scholarships.

"We'd love to expand, go to the Sea of Cortez," says Amy Orchard, education specialist at the Desert Museum.

"I think Laurel would have been very happy about this," says Brown, whose husband Richard's nephew, Eric Liljequist, is volunteering at this year's camp.

Margory Brown, along with two grandchildren, including Clark's son, 11-year-old Ian, also will attend the camp's closing celebration on Saturday.

"It's about Laurel and what her passion was," says Orchard.

Camper-turned-counselor Diana Vargas has obviously bought into that passion.

"Anybody can help this planet," she says. "One single thing can change the world."

For more information about Earth Camp, call Amy Orchard at 883-3083.

If you'd like to make a donation, here's the address: Earth Camp tuition, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, 2021 N. Kinney Road, Tucson, AZ 85743.

● Reach columnist Bonnie Henry at 434-4074 or at bhenry@azstarnet.com, or write to 3295 W. Ina Road, Suite 125, Tucson, AZ 85741. Bonnie's book ● Reprints of Bonnie Henry's 1992 book, "Another Tucson," are available for $29.95 from cafepress.com/azstarnet or 1-877-809-1659. The product number is 13596486.

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