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March 25, 2014

Champion of Change


On March 18, Dr. Benjamin Blonder, an ecologist at the University of Arizona and a volunteer leader with the Sierra Club's Inner City Outings (ICO) program in Tucson, was honored at the White House as a Champion of Change, along with 13 other environmental and conservation leaders.

Blonder is cofounder and Education Coordinator at the Sky School, a residential science school located on a campus in the heart of southern Arizona's Coronado National Forest that provides immersive, year-round environmental education programs to K-12 students.

Sky School, which started in 2012, had its genesis when Blonder was studying for his doctoral program in ecology and evolutionary biology, and in his personal experiences working as an environmental educator with AmeriCorps and as a middle-school science teacher at Miles Exploratory Learning Center, a public school in Tucson.

At Sky School, students work in small groups with a graduate student mentor, brainstorming ideas, learning how to do scientific research, and presenting their findings to peers, teachers, and other scientists at the end of the program.

Because of Blonder's efforts, each year hundreds of K-12 students, primarily from Title 1 schools, are able to conduct independent research while exploring the region's "sky island" ecology, biology, and geology. And since Sky School is located at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter, they have access to the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory to study astronomy.

Below, Blonder (back row, fourth from right) with other adult leaders and youth participants on a recent Tucson ICO trip.


Blonder, who grew up in New Jersey twenty miles from Manhattan, says he didn't spend all that much time getting out into nature as a kid. "My experience was primarily sidewalks and strip malls and night skies lit up by airplanes instead of stars," he says. "I never went camping until I left for college. I was fortunate that I took one ecology class as an undergraduate student, just out of curiosity, and a whole new world opened up for me. I think everyone deserves the same life-changing experience I had."

The Planet caught up with Blonder the week after he won his Champion of Change award.

Planet: How did it feel to win the Champion of Change award and be honored at the White House?

Blonder: It was an honor of the highest order to share our work at the White House. Much as my experience in AmeriCorps inspired my work with the Sky School and Inner City Outings, I hope that sharing our work at Sky School will inspire others across the country.

Planet: Tell us about your work with AmeriCorps.

Blonder: I served for a year at the McCall Outdoors Science Center (MOSS), located in central Idaho. They are a residential outdoor science school with very similar goals to the Sky School. I had just moved out West after finishing my bachelor's degree, and I wanted to learn more about teaching and connect to a completely different landscape and community than what I was used to on the East Coast. I spent a year living in a state park, teaching K-12 students at our campus, or living out of motels, teaching students in their schools throughout the state. The experience was a very powerful one for me -- it taught me how to be an effective teacher and team member and exposed me to the power of inquiry-based outdoor science education. I think I learned as much that year as any of my students did. I took away from that experience the "blueprints" for what a very successful science education program could look like.

Planet: How did you get involved with Inner City Outings?

Blonder: I moved to Tucson for graduate school and wanted to stay involved with the conservation and education world. So first thing, I looked up my local Sierra Club chapter and found that there was an ICO group in Tucson. One autumn evening I cycled over to my first meeting, met a great group of people, and never left.

Planet: How did you get the idea for Sky School?

Blonder: I had been leading trips for ICO in Tucson for two years. The year I envisioned Sky School, I was also teaching at a Tucson public school through a National Science Foundation K-12 partnership. These experiences exposed me to so many students who didn't have opportunities to connect to the natural environment, or to engage the world from a scientific viewpoint. And as I mentioned, I'd worked at the MOSS residential science school in Idaho, and I thought that model could also be successful in the Sonoran desert. The actual genesis of the idea came during my Ph.D. qualifying examinations. I was asked what I would do to make the University of Arizona a more effective community partner -- and my proposal was the Sky School.

Planet: Tell us a little about your work as an ecologist at the University of Arizona.

Blonder: I study how plants respond to climate change -- past and present. My field work has taken me around the world, from the cloud forest of Peru to the volcanoes of Hawaii, studying everything from contemporary forests to late-Cretaceous fossils. I love working outdoors, and I enjoy sharing my passion for science through ICO.

Planet: What do you think are the most valuable things kids get from their ICO experience?

Blonder: In Tucson, many children have never visited public land or felt at home in the outdoors. We change that. We create a connection to the natural environment, help students feel they belong in the outdoors, and that the outdoors is their steward. We take a place that is alien and make it friendly.

Planet: Why is spending time outdoors so important?

Blonder: Whether we realize it or not, we are connected to the outdoors. We depend on the environment for our subsistence, and also for our happiness. When we lose that connection we lose our anchoring in the world. Responsible stewardship depends on knowing and loving the landscape we use.

Planet: Do you have a favorite ICO story you'd like to relate?

Blonder: I still remember one of my first ICO trips during my first year in Tucson. A fifth-grader asked me, "Who waters the desert?" That moment convinced me how much work there still was to do.

Planet: What would be your pitch to other adults to get involved with ICO?

Blonder: Spend time outdoors, inspire the next generation of conversation leaders, meet other passionate volunteers -- why haven't you signed up already?


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