One Saturday morning in the summer of 2012, 15-year-old Daniel Godinez catches the bus from his home in Goleta. With transfers and delays, he pieces together a two-hour circuitous ride to the Museum of Natural History. He walks along the empty parking lot shaded by ancient live oaks, past the enormous blue whale skeleton, through the adobe entrance, and cuts across the peaceful courtyard. Opening the door marked “Gladwin Planetarium,” he feels his way along a dark aisle toward the control booth with the awesome presence of the sky dome overhead. In less than an hour, the audience will begin filling the seats for the first show of the day; but now he is alone. This is Daniel’s moment; he is about to turn on the universe.
If you had happened to take a seat that morning, leaning back, you would have been guided through the wonders of our solar system and beyond by an upbeat and articulate astronomer who appeared far too young to be lecturing on 14 billion years of cosmic arcana. What special opportunities did this young man, practically a boy, have to be so knowledgeable, you might have wondered? Did he have a father who was an astronomer or an uncle with a great telescope? In fact, Daniel is the son of Mexican immigrants with little formal education. While his launch pad was the public school system, and his rocket fuel his own drive, his achievement is also a testament to the importance of science electives and a responsive network of educators who cared enough to go beyond their paid orbits.
In the winter of 2009, Daniel’s junior high science teacher announced there would be an opportunity for students to take part in a special program “to use a really big telescope across the world.” Daniel was not the sort of student to step forward for science electives. Though he worked at his studies, he had only been speaking English for six years, and his school record was undistinguished with low test scores and missing work. His parents worked in the service industry, and, as with many Mexicans, they valued family, religion, and practical abilities foremost. It would not have been unusual for their teenage child to forfeit secondary school in order to enter the work force. True, Daniel was enrolled in AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a public school program intended to promote first-generation college-bound students, but in practice he found the study-skills class dull. It felt to him like a dumping ground for language-limited low achievers, and he wasn’t particularly sure how far he wanted to go with his education. His science teacher, however, proved persuasive, insisting the activity was within reach of any student who desired it and not just a perk for A students. Admitting that he was already intrigued with the subject, Daniel finally agreed to sign up.
The program turned out to be part of the Faulkes Telescope Project (FTP), the brainchild of English entrepreneur and philanthropist Martin C. “Dill” Faulkes, who wanted to provide free access to robotic telescopes and a fully supported educational program for teachers and students. “The idea of giving British youngsters access to a world-class telescope immediately appealed to me,” said Faulkes. “I could see that spending a few million pounds making science and maths in schools more interesting would have much more effect on children than spending half a billion on truancy measures.”
Making science “more interesting” turned out to be the flashpoint for Daniel. Through this one FTP program, he found his world opening, his interest in science intensifying, and his personal focus on astronomy leading to a string of stunning achievements: county and state science-fair awards; a research mentorship at the University of California, Santa Barbara; a paid teaching assistantship as astronomy tutor at Santa Barbara City College; and a planetarium operator gig at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, which eventually led to a staff position as astronomy programs assistant there. Access to a world-class telescope certainly made a difference in Daniel’s life. But so did key mentors along the way.
The first in a long line of people who recognized Daniel’s potential was his Goleta Valley Junior High science teacher, Kim Miller [disclosure: The writer is Miller’s spouse]. She was introduced to the Faulkes Telescope Project through the Goleta-based parent company Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT), founded by former Google vice president of engineering Wayne Rosing. LCOGT is a nonprofit foundation building a computer-coordinated network of telescopes around the globe, ultimately allowing the continual observation of celestial objects. At a 2007 science conference, Miller met FTP Director Paul Roche. He invited her to enroll her students, the first invited from the continental U.S., into the Faulkes program. From the start, the challenge was destined for the intrepid few. The students would be allotted time on two two-meter telescopes, one in Australia and the other in Hawai‘i. But the big problem for most U.S. students was the hour. The scopes are ideally positioned globally for peering into the night sky during the British school day — less so for the U.S. West Coast. And even when a handful of students found the will (and parental permission) to huddle around a computer screen with Miller at 4 a.m., there was never a guarantee until the last minute that the skies might not be clouded over and obscured from sight.
Daniel was one of only two students in Miller’s FTP trial run. He was hooked from the moment he began and was soon pushing for more. He wanted to use this new resource for a science-fair project and was thus introduced to a network of astronomy experts and educators. He Skype-chatted with Roche. He consulted with astronomer Rachel Street and LCOGT educator Rachel Ross. Street helped him understand photometry and “color-color” techniques that reveal whether stars that look close to one another really are, in fact, members of the same cluster. He attended “physics tea” at UCSB with astrophysicists Omer Blaes and Kristian Finlator, learning blackbody radiation and how to interpret the effects of cosmic dust. The LCOGT and FTP web resources proved invaluable. Using the remote telescope interface via the Internet, Daniel directed the telescopes to image a never-before-studied star cluster in the Monoceros constellation. But these pics were just the beginning. Long advisory sessions with Street and Finlator were required to learn how to process the data. Eventually, Daniel and his teammate, Caylin Canales, were able to unlock the composition and age of these celestial objects. Their investigation “Aging the Stars” was a triumph, winning a gold medal in the Santa Barbara County Science Fair and fourth place in the Physics & Astronomy division at the California State Science Fair.
For all that, the night sky was just beginning to deepen for Daniel. He joined a group of area astronomy enthusiasts, the Astronomical Unit, and began attending lectures and “star parties,” where telescopes are spread out over the dark Museum of Natural History grounds. One night after a meeting, Daniel approached Javier Rivera, director of the Gladwin Planetarium, and sheepishly asked, “At some point, in the late future, maybe I could help in the planetarium?” To his surprise, Rivera said that the opportunity was available now if he was serious about learning.
Two or more days a week, Daniel rose at 6 a.m. to arrive at the planetarium by 9 a.m. to practice. A planetarium operator, he quickly learned, is not only a technician but also a conceptual artist and performer. He must be skilled with programs that govern an array of projectors, but these skills have to serve a concept and mesh with a script. The beginnings were awkward, but practice paid off. After a few months, Daniel’s shows were gaining traction, especially with the younger crowd. He found ways to add pizzazz. For example, prior to showtime, instead of projecting a static night sky with sedate New Age music, he ran a roaring simulation of a rollercoaster ride on Jupiter. “I would see all the kids screaming and putting their hands up before the show even begins,” he said.
While astronomy became his passion du jour, its effect leavened his scholastic prowess generally. The feeling of success and the excitement of intellectual growth pushed dreams of college to the forefront. Daniel enrolled in the challenging International Baccalaureate (IB) program at Dos Pueblos High School, committing himself, in effect, to a school within a school, an elite group of 22 highly motivated students immersed in a rigorous program of weighted solid courses. The steeper path would be hard, but it could imprint his transcript with a mark of distinction. It would speak to American colleges certainly; but it could also open the doors to universities abroad — a possibility that has to be considered by any young-adult immigrant wondering whether his society regards him as a first- or second-class citizen.
In the summer of 2012, Daniel was one of 80 students to be accepted into UCSB’s competitive, six-week intensive Research Mentorship Program. He became a research assistant to postdocs Finlator and Po Kin Leung, who were running computer simulations of the early universe. The following year, Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) professor Fred Marschak offered Daniel part-time work as a planetary science tutor to SBCC astronomy students, a position he still holds today.
Daniel first met Marschak in the summer prior to 9th grade, when he took — and aced — the college’s introductory astronomy course. Daniel’s office hours now, at times, resemble a university teaching assistantship, with up to 20 students, all older than he is, some middle-aged. “It can be challenging to tutor adults who possess specialized knowledge and wisdom that in another context would put them in authority,” he confessed. “As a tutor, I am not there to lecture students — that’s the teacher’s job. Rather, I am there as a guide.”
Late last year, Daniel weathered the college application process while continuing to carry a heavy academic load. He worked for a while at a bowling alley to supplement his family income and contribute to his own vehicle expenses. Suggest to Daniel that, just maybe, driving an extra 25 miles three times a week to a tutoring job that barely covers gas might not be the best use of a high school senior’s time, and you might as well hope to separate gravity from a black hole. It’s not the money — it’s Ariadne’s thread to a dream profession. “An intellectually stimulating position, it not only demonstrates my potential and ability as an individual — it connects me with the academic community that represents my future,” Daniel recently wrote in a personal essay.
And then, in late December, another star sparkled in Daniel’s sky: Javier Rivera offered him a part-time job as astronomy programs assistant at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History — and at nearly twice the pay of the bowling alley. Now he works two jobs that are guide wires to his future. But most extraordinary of all, spring college responses began with a supernova: Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, has offered Daniel the Distinguished Scientist-Scholar Award — a four-year full tuition scholarship. “Lucky star” is not a scientific concept, but it is hard not to read in all of this an array of favorable aspects. With senior exams to face and part-time jobs at the college and the museum, Daniel shows no sign of slackening his pace: “escape velocity” scientists call it — the speed required for a rocket to break gravity’s hold.
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