In Utah's west desert, the land is big and bare and the sky stretches above it in a seemingly endless canopy.
Friday morning, it was filled with clouds, but students at Ibapah Elementary School were keeping an eagle eye on the sky, with their fingers crossed that the cloud cover would move on and leave them an unobstructed view of the heavens. When in the afternoon the clouds began to lose their grip and big patches of blue appeared, they rejoiced.They were waiting for a star party, a chance to see, closer up, the stars that wink anonymously overhead. A visitor to the school, Brent Watson, had brought one of his homemade telescopes to open up some new vistas for the youngsters.
"I hope we'll be able to see our moon and Saturn with some of its moons," said Watson, who also was cheering the appearance of blue skies overhead.Watson and a fellow engineering manager at Iomega Corp., Wayne Sumner, have offered their astronomy expertise to Utah schools, particularly those in rural areas of the state, as a service to education. Ibapah, relatively isolated in the desert region and with 22 students in six grades (except second this year), fits the bill.
In fact, the astronomy programs offered by the two scientists have been so popular that Sumner was holding forth in Sunnyside, Carbon County, Friday while Watson intrigued the Ibapah students.
"What can you see in the sky?" he asked a small group of wiggly kindergarteners and first-graders. When they seemed content to name the variety of birds that inhabit their desert world, he guided them out and beyond, to the sun moon and stars.
"But you can't look at the sun. It'll blind you," Nathan Hicks volunteered.
Sitting at eye level with the youngsters and using a plastic world and a plastic moon, he demonstrated how the moon orbits the Earth and the Earth orbits the sun. With a projected light to act as the sun, he simulated the day-to-night rotation of the Earth, with half the globe in shadow at any given time.
Throughout the day, Watson met with other classes, adapting the materials to each age group.
"We didn't know what to expect when we started this," Watson said during a noon break. We figured we'd get lots of response or none. We've had a lot more than we expected." He and Sumner have had invitations from one end of the state to the other - from St. George to Grouse Creek and from Vernal to Beryl Junction.
Occasionally, they take a "long lunch hour" from their work at Iomega in Roy to visit a Wasatch Front school.
Iomega, he said, is a "good corporate neighbor" that has encouraged the two engineers to volunteer time in the schools.
Such volunteerism has the potential to fill a serious gap in the science education Utah students receive, he said. It also has the potential, in the long run, to help high-tech companies find the qualified personnel they need for today's jobs, he said.