Connecting Children to Science and Place in the Sonoran Desert

Benjamin Blonder

Benjamin Blonder is being honored as a Next Generation of Conservation Leaders Champion of Change.

My great-grandfather immigrated to the United States from China in 1915, at the age of 11. He soon became the owner of a corner grocery store in Tucson, Arizona, and stayed in the community for decades. Now, almost a century later, I find myself living in this same desert city, honored to share my experience bringing science education to communities in southern Arizona.

I came to the Sonoran Desert for a graduate program in ecology at the University of Arizona, and became captivated by the border region. Tucson itself brings together Native Americans, more recent immigrants, refugees, military families, students, retirees, and everyone else in between. We share an arid landscape situated between the Coronado National Forest, Saguaro National Park, and the Tohono O’Odham Nation. Living here, I saw that our natural areas are not equally accessed or appreciated, especially by the children who are our next generation of conservation leaders.

When I wasn’t studying ecology, I was teaching science at a middle school in the Tucson Unified School District and leading hiking trips for The Sierra Club Foundation’s Inner City Outings program. These experiences showed me many children who could benefit from a deeper sense of place and scientific focus on our environment. Science education can build broader minds, better jobs, and more thoughtful stewards of the land.

In late 2011 I proposed creating the Sky School  a science education program that would connect youth to our environment through inquiry-based outdoor science education. With support from the University of Arizona’s College of Science and the Forest Service, we have made that vision a reality. Our home is the summit of Mt. Lemmon, rising 6000’ above the Tucson basin. We’ve transformed a 25-acre observatory into a residential school, with hiking trails providing access to thousands of acres of public land.

We take school groups to our site for a week at a time, where students work in small groups to conduct original research with graduate students and other scientists. For many, a Sky School trip is their first experience outside their neighborhood, their first visit to public land, and their first contact with a real scientist. I know that these experiences can have a transformative effect on a life.

In our first two years we will have served more than six hundred students from seventeen primarily low-income schools. The community response has been overwhelmingly positive. Students have said, “I enjoyed what I was doing so much that I said I want to become a scientist”; “This has opened my eyes to all of the possibilities for myself in the scientific field”; “This is the best field trip I have ever been on.” Teachers agree, saying “To get them outside seeing what they’re studying is so important” and “this immersive, stimulating and engaging program will become a fixture in our school district’s science curriculum.” We are excited to keep growing and bring this experience to more schools in the Southwest.

My passion for science education was sparked by an AmeriCorps service year with the McCall Outdoor Science School. I lived in central Idaho, where I taught environmental science and saw firsthand the positive impact of environmental education. Much of what we are now doing at the Sky School is inspired by my time there. I hope that this chain of inspiration will continue, so that some of the Arizona youth we now serve will find ways to become the scientific and conservation leaders of tomorrow.

Dr. Benjamin Blonder is the co-founder of the University of Arizona Sky School. He is an ecologist studying how plants respond to climate change.

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