Science and Technology

JMU to launch space explorers program at city Boys and Girls Club


by Eric Gorton

 

SUMMARY: A $4,000 Innovative Diversity Efforts Award (IDEA) that Mortensen received with Planetarium Director Shanil Virani is fueling their effort to create a Space Explorers Club at the Boys & Girls Club in Harrisonburg, one of seven clubs in the Boys & Girls Clubs of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.


Calah Mortensen helps a visitor look at the sun through a solar telescope set up near the John C. Wells Planetarium.
Calah Mortensen helps a visitor look at the sun through a solar telescope set up near the John C. Wells Planetarium.



Calah Mortensen didn't have much of an interest in science until she took a cosmology class during her undergraduate studies. Now a graduate student at JMU, Mortensen is helping manage the John C. Wells Planetarium and organizing a program to deliver science to children who might not normally get the opportunity. 

"If we don't involve females or minorities in science, there will be things we'll never discover, or it will take longer to discover them," said Mortensen, a Rockingham County native and 2012 graduate of Broadway High School.

A $4,000 Innovative Diversity Efforts Award (IDEA) that Mortensen received with Planetarium Director Shanil Virani is fueling their effort to create a Space Explorers Club at the Boys & Girls Club in Harrisonburg in the fall. The city club is one of seven clubs in the Boys & Girls Clubs of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. Housed at the Lucy F. Simms Continuing Education Center, the club's afterschool program provides activities for the kinds of kids Mortensen and Virani want to connect with. 

"We’re trying to reach communities that otherwise may not have heard of us or there may be more of a barrier for them to come to the planetarium, so we wanted to go to them," Virani said.

The weekly Space Explorers activities will be patterned after the successful Space Explorers summer camps that Virani has been running since 2013. JMU students with an interest in teaching, particularly science, will lead the activities that Virani said are designed to engage, excite and motivate children. "It's about them getting involved and them having success in doing science and engineering," he said.

Geared mainly for middle school students, the Space Explorers activities will take place once a week during the Boys & Girls Club afterschool program. Three field trips to the planetarium are also being planned. "We want them to see themselves on a university campus," Virani said. "Many of these kids will likely be from homes where their parents haven’t attended college. JMU looks like a foreign country to them. We want them to come on campus, make them feel comfortable, allow them to see themselves being a university student."

Said Lori Kizner, executive director of The Boys & Girls Clubs, "The Space Explorers Program will provide our youth with an opportunity to engage in science in a whole new way. The science lessons and field trips to the planetarium will add to our STEM programming, as we prepare our youth for the world ahead."

The IDEA funding will cover all costs of the Space Explorers Camp and students will not have to pay anything extra to participate. IDEA grants provide funding to JMU students, faculty and staff who want to test original ideas and/or develop sustainable activities and projects for the enrichment of diversity and inclusion at JMU.

In addition to funding the afterschool activities, the grant will provide for 10 scholarships for students at the Boys & Girls Club to attend the Space Explorers Summer Camp in 2017.

Virani said it was Mortensen's idea to partner with the Boys & Girls Club and that she has been key in planning the program. "I just love working with people who are passionate, talented and want to make change. That’s her to a T," he said. 

Mortensen, who is working on a master's degree for teaching English as a second language, said she got the idea from a class she took on multicultural education during her first semester at JMU. Her research focused on the dearth of minorities in physics and astronomy programs in the U.S. and how to change that, she said.

"I love being able to give all children the opportunity to pursue science or math or anything," she said. "It's not exclusive to science, but since I'm working at a planetarium, that's one thing I can be a part of. A lot of these kids, they've probably never been to a planetarium." 

Virani and Mortensen hope to attract outside funding to keep the program going beyond JMU's fall semester. 

"We want this to continue and we want it to grow," Virani said.

Donations can be made to the John C. Wells Planetarium at http://bit.ly/1Sml5NT. A box for comments can be used to specify that the gift is for the Space Explorers Club at the Harrisonburg Boys & Girls Club.

By Rachel Petty ('17), JMU Communications 

Published: Friday, April 22, 2016

Last Updated: Thursday, October 20, 2016

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