Students at Bunnell Elementary School had an ambassador drop in to speak to them these past two weeks, but this one isn’t your average diplomat: He’s Lee Bentzley, NASA-certified Solar System Ambassador.
“We’re bringing field trips to us,” said science teacher Melissa Brock, who invited Bentzley and Palm Coast Astronomy Club President and Founder Fred Pellmann to come to the school to teach the fifth-graders about astronomy. “We’re creating experiences for these kids.”
Bentzley and Pellmann have showed up at the school for the past two weeks, toting props to help get kids excited about science: photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope, a celestial sphere showing the constellations and stars near the earth’s solar system, and spectral glasses that reveal the colors within white light.
Bentzley, 75, is a retired aerospace engineer and current member of the Astronomy Club of Palm Coast. He has been doing school presentations regularly since about 2004. He attends regular training sessions created by NASA for volunteers who speak about astronomy at schools.
“It keeps me going,” he said. “It’s always exciting to see the kids get excited about something like black holes."
Fifth-grade student Zara Mascarella, 10, said she like learning about stars and their patterns. "We learned all about stars and constellations," she said. "I like to know about the way the stars look like they change with the earth's rotation."
The kids giggled when they looked through the spectral glasses. "It was awesome," said Monica Lovelette, 10. "You could see all of the lines for the different types of light."
Pellmann, 83, founded the Astronomy Club of Palm Coast in 2005 with just a few members. Now, he said, some of the 100 or so people on the club’s mailing list are kids who got interested in astronomy after watching his presentations.
“This is the kind of instruction they can’t get anywhere else,” he said, especially when so many schools have to focus on preparations for standardized tests.
A retired elecro-mechanical engineer, Pellmann became interested in astronomy as a boy. Born in the U.S., he travelled to Germany as a child with his parents to visit extended family, and the family found itself stuck there when World War II broke out, he said.
When the cities were blacked out for air raids and the night sky coal-dark, Pellmann stared upwards at the winking millions of stars, memorizing their patterns.
He began reading up on astronomy, gathering a library of hundreds of books on the subject. And although he didn’t become an aerospace engineer, some of the gadgets he helped design for ITT ended up on the moon, and are still there, he said.
Recently, he showed up at Indian Trails Middle School with a telescope — one of the large ones that a viewer has to climb a ladder to see through — and he watched a kid get hooked on astronomy that day.
“He climbed the ladder and looked through the scope, and climbed down and said, ‘I want to be an astronomer!’ His father was there and didn’t know what hit him,” Pellmann said.
Teacher Melissa Brock said Pellmann and Bentzley got the kids fired up.
“They’ve enjoyed it,” she said. “They’re asking all kinds of great questions.”