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Lighting the Fire

Mercury Spring 2012 Table of Contents

by Don McCarthy

Student observing through telescope

Student observing Fraunhofer absorption lines in the Sun's spectrum using the Camp's spectrometer on the 60-inch telescope on Mt. Lemmon. Image courtesy Astronomy Camp.

Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, I was captivated by the adventure, both physical and mental, of the era of space exploration. I longed to be part of that process and somehow to contribute personally. So I became a scientist with the goal of working in space. However, I missed the final cut of the original Shuttle astronaut selection in 1977, as 10,000 applicants were whittled down to 100 and finally to only a few.

From that exciting experience I learned something surprising: NASA had not understood the 'deep impact' that Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo had on a new generation. The combination of forefront research and education is a powerful force to inspire and empower people of all ages. Yet, the benefits of inspiration and education are long-term. They do not lend themselves easily to quantitative assessment and may only be realized decades later.

For nearly three decades I have led a group of dedicated students and educators in an inspiring educational program called "Astronomy Camp." Sponsored by The University of Arizona (UA) Alumni Association, the "Camps" have engaged students from around the world and impacted my university and the nation in surprising ways. Now, on our 25th anniversary, we will soon enroll children of former Campers! Our experience illustrates the benefits of teaching science authentically, merged holistically with its partners of math, engineering, and technology. It also contains lessons to benefit parents, educators, and administrators who seek to solve the growing problem of a changed society that seems not to value basic research and numeracy.

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