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The Volunteer Astronomer

Dave Olson and "Big Blue"

Generosity has been one of the hallmark values associated with the leaders who have made Outdoor Lab a point of community pride and an institution of national regard since its inception. One particular highlight of this generosity is the establishment of the Mount Evans Observatory.

Since 1974, the Mount Evans campus has been home to an amazing resource to give kids a peek into the incredible wonders of outer space. The donation of a Celestron 22-inch Reflector Telescope was first initiated by the Gates Planetarium (now the Denver Museum of Nature and Science). The donation was to be conferred only if the school district could rally private support to construct a building to house the telescope. The Alameda West Kiwanis (led by Rod Greiner) rallied community support and raised the necessary funds (approximately $45,000 at the time) to purchase the necessary materials and supplies. The US Navy Seabees led the volunteer labor effort to construct the building that the telescope still resides in today.

“Big Blue,” as it’s affectionately called, has the ability for students to view deep space such as nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters.

Jason Harding, Mount Evans’ Program Specialist, says, “At Outdoor Lab, kids get a chance to see the stars in between the stars. They get a unique opportunity to use so many tools to explore and ask questions of the night sky.”

Ryan Bazz, Mount Evans’ Principal, adds, “Some students that visit us have never really seen good views of stars because they live in the city. Watching kids see stars through our scopes for the first time gives you chills.”

Big Blue weighs 1,000 pounds and had to be airlifted by helicopter from downtown Denver to its new home at the Mount Evans campus in 1974. At the time of the donation, the telescope was valued at $30,000, and the accompanying television equipment to protect the telescope’s images was valued at another $35,000. Interestingly, the television equipment was donated by NBC and had been used in the tracking of Apollo 10!

That television equipment has now been replaced by iPads but 6th graders still get to see some amazing sites and follow in the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of kids before them who were inspired by the world-class telescope and the celestial objects it connected them to. The Astronomy class is still a highlight of the week at Outdoor Lab. Students explore wavelengths of light and how they can be used to understand the characteristics of the stars. They use the iPads to help orient the night sky and investigate the relative size and distance of the objects in our solar system and beyond.

This legacy of generosity continues today through the time and dedication one man puts into preserving and protecting the observatory and telescope. David Olson has been volunteering at the Mount Evans Observatory since 1996. He is an important reason why the Astronomy class is so memorable and impactful. Not only does he lead the class’s instruction, but he also supports the teachers on-site by maintaining the observatory facilities and taking care of the telescopes on site. Every Thursday when schools are in session, David travels up to the Mount Evans campus after work to teach kids about the stars.

As a kid, Dave was inspired by Big Blue and the class that offered him a chance to see and do something he had never had the opportunity to do before. He attended Mount Evans Outdoor Lab in 6th grade, and he describes the experience as life-changing. His weekly excursions up the hill to Big Blue are his way of giving back to the community and to the kids of Jeffco - knowing that an experience under the stars can be transformational.

Harding adds, “Kids sense of wonderment is only amplified when in the presence of Dave Olson, and we cannot thank him enough for volunteering each week!”

Thank you to David and to all the incredible volunteers, leaders, and supporters that have made Outdoor Lab the community asset that it is.