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Lost in Space

The students who attend Astrocamp, high in the San Jacinto Mountains, have such a good time learning about the cosmos, they don't even seem to notice that they're learning too. They become enveloped by the adventure, as if they're . . .

March 26, 1998|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DYLLWILD — For some of these city kids, a sky full of snowflakes is more foreign than Saturn's rings.

They're supposed to be learning about space--you know, doing their bit to make American students more competitive with their science- and math-oriented peers worldwide.

Outside, though, the night looks as if it is embroiled in a cosmic pillow fight. Knowing that only destabilizes this already volatile adolescent energy mass.

And that's fine with Astrocamp instructor John Keller.

Temporary exiles from Eagle Rock's junior high magnet, these students are at an age--and of an Age--when cool rules. Overt displays of enthusiasm are seen by some as the antithesis of that quality.

But now they're in the mountains for three days. They've been hurling snowballs at one another and their teachers--"That's for the C you gave me"--and this has eroded the cynical force field with which they protect their fragile psyches.

Keller swoops in like a Jedi pilot.

First, he persuades a preternaturally hip ninth-grader to spin on the floor in imitation of the spiral galaxy we inhabit. Then he cajoles seventh- and eighth-graders to slam dance about like the particles that make up Saturn's rings.

Simultaneously, working at light speed--186,000 miles per second--he flashes slides and fires facts into the students' unusually vulnerable cortices.

Keller, 28, has seesawed from teaching to research since getting his master's in 1992. He had participated in NASA science-enrichment programs as a high school teacher, then went on to pursue a PhD in planetary science, when he decided that sharing science with kids meant more to him than Europa, a moon of Jupiter that he'd been exploring through information beamed back from the Galileo spaceship.

Astrocamp, he says, reminded him of the stargazing field trips that had first inspired him to explore astronomy when he was an adolescent in Idaho.

Astrocamp's hope, Keller says, is to plant ideas that will later ignite an explosion of interest. Sometimes, he suggests, one can almost hear the fuses hissing.

"If Saturn is, like, a gas planet, is it, like, all gas?" a student asks. "I mean, if I stood on it, would I fall through?"

"If you were to stand on it, you would start falling," Keller says. He makes his lanky frame flail. " 'Whoa! I'm falling! Cool!'

"But you wouldn't go right through. Why?"

"Gravity pulls the gas together?"

"Yeah, the center would still be gas, but really dense gas."

The students stare at the shed-sized slide of Saturn, shot from the Voyager spacecraft. For another moment they seem to forget that snow falls outside. Then Keller dismisses them to their next class, and the snowy mayhem begins anew.

The Astrocamp philosophy is simple, says director Dave Goodsell: "We're not trying to fill their heads with a bunch of knowledge. We're trying to expose them to a field of knowledge. Those are two very different things."

Astrocamp, says Goodsell, is the creation of a former Orange County high school biology teacher and football coach named Ross Turner. Over the course of his teaching career, Turner had come to realize that the most powerful education often occurred on field trips, Goodsell says. So, 20 years ago, Turner and his wife, Kristi, sold their home to finance a marine biology camp on Catalina Island.

Their nonprofit educational corporation, Guided Discoveries Inc., expanded its Catalina Island Marine Institute to three sites on the island and in 1991 took over a failing private boarding school at Idyllwild. Under Goodsell's direction, they transformed the 90-acre campus into Astrocamp.

Guided Discoveries now has about 75 instructors at its four facilities, and about 25 or so maintenance and cooking staff members. About 30,000 fourth-grade through ninth-grade students from Southern California and several Western states attended the programs last year--13,000 of them taking the stomach-sloshing bus ride up to Astrocamp.

Both public and private schools attend, with about 70% of the students at any time coming from the larger public school population. The maximum number of students on campus at one time is 300.

Goodsell says one of his regrets is that so few schools from poor neighborhoods attend the camp, so few disadvantaged students get the camp's science jolt.

Tuition for the program runs about $40 a day per student (including dormitory housing and cafeteria meals in the camp's lodge-like dining hall), and a bus from Los Angeles goes for about $750. So unless a school has private funding or a highly motivated staff and parents, the cost can seem prohibitive, Goodsell said.

Once a school does attend, he says, the return rate is about 90%. Teachers attending the camp gave credence to that percentage, saying that they lobby to return year after year.

"The students experience things here we could never do in a classroom," says Liz Hein, a teacher at Santa Monica's science magnet.

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