Seven-thousand feet above Tucson, and surrounded by the horizons, K-12 students are learning about the natural world and the night sky at the University of Arizona's UAScience Sky School at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter.
Led by Alan Straus, director of the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter, and the UA College of Science, the Sky School program brings students out of the city and onto the mountaintop, where they explore, learn about science and the natural world, design their own experiments and interact with UA graduate student scientists.
"Students from public schools gain exposure to science content including geoscience, astronomy and ecology," Strauss said, "and at the same time they're interacting with a graduate student scientist who's challenging them to explore their preconceived notions of what it means to engage in a process of scientific inquiry."
The K-12 students get exposure to scientific concepts and processes – and a chance to run around in the woods – while UA graduate students receive a valuable teaching and mentoring experience. And the teachers who accompany school groups gain cutting-edge scientific content to take back to the classroom.
"It's been a win-win-win for everybody," Strauss said. "These kinds of opportunities haven't existed locally for students in the past."
"Science should be more than just a classroom experience," said Larry Speta, principal of the Academy of Tucson Middle School, who brought his fourth- and fifth-grade students to the SkySchool.
"In our school we believe in the Socratic teaching method, which is teaching them to think: Why is that correct? How can you support it? Where’s the evidence? Does anybody disagree?" Speta said
Thinking is exactly what students participating in the Sky School's flagship multi-day program do, designing their own science experiment and working with a UA graduate student mentor to do research and present their findings to their peers, as if they were scientists at a symposium.
"It's an immersive way of connecting Tucson K-12 students to the science of the University, and simultaneously providing an in-depth teaching experience for our graduate students," Strauss said.
"I love that we let students come up with their own research projects and guide them through the process," said Moira Hough, who is finishing a Master of Science degree in the UA's School of Natural Resources and the Environment and entering her doctoral studies in the UA's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. "They get to learn about something that really interests them and most importantly, they learn how to figure out the answers to their questions."
"Mount Lemmon is really a perfect environment for a program like Sky School because there are so many different ecosystems and so many different possibilities of questions students can ask," Hough added.
"We tested different soil layers," said Niko Plant, a ninth-grade student at Tucson's Tanque Verde High School who participated in the multi-day program. "We found that the top layers were pines and decomposing materials, and we got to test the parent materials that make up the soil, like the rocks around the mountain."
"I hadn't done anything like that before," Plant said. "I felt like I learned a lot more designing my own experiment than having it assigned to me. The best thing, I think, was being able to see what scientists really do in the field."
Shelby Teitelbaum, a 12th-grade student at Tanque Verde High School, agrees. "I liked how we did a research project, but it wasn't sitting at the computer. You got to go and do it."
In addition to carrying out research projects, the students participate in several scientific activities including learning about dendrochronology – the study of annual tree growth rings that can be used to measure past climate, recording observations of nature, and measuring changes in temperature and elevation during the drive up the mountain.
Learning in the Open Air
"Get ready, get ready… look now!"
Pacifica Sommers, a doctoral candidate in the UA's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, stands at the mountain's summit at sunset during the program, directing students to look for the famous green rim caused by light waves refracting through the Earth's atmosphere just when the sun disappears over the horizon.
For many of the students, this is the first time they have stepped outside the city and into the wilderness, or seen the clear, star-filled sky high on the mountain away from city lights.
"The stars look like one color, but if you look through a telescope they're all different colors," Teitelbaum said.
Students get to use the telescopes at the SkyCenter and interact with professional astronomers, answering trivia questions posed to them by the graduate students and their teachers to get a turn at operating the telescope: How many seconds does it take light to travel from the sun to the Earth? What type of ice can you find on Mars? Why is Mount Lemmon called a Sky Island?
After a year piloting the Sky School, "I'm increasingly aware of the value of this experience," Strauss said. "To be involved with our incredible graduate students, faculty and staff in creating something meaningful for the community and for the University of Arizona has been a wonderful opportunity. It's a chance to connect people to the University and to the place where they live, through science. This may then increase their appreciation of it, and ultimately may impact their stewardship of our natural resources."
"Even if you don’t want to study science, it's still a really cool experience," Teitelbaum said. "I think everyone should go."
The program is equally rewarding for the graduate students who serve as mentors for the children.
"It's fantastic to see how excited the students get through the process," Hough said. "That enthusiasm is contagious, re-energizing me and reminding me what a fascinating world we live in."
"I was fortunate growing up," said Sommers, whose parents are scientists. "I was exposed all my life to people asking questions about the world around us, then setting out to explore and answer those questions."
"I want to be that person, even for one day only, who makes 'science' and 'adventure' make sense in the same sentence for kids," she said.