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.