Colombia is hundreds of miles and an ocean away from Austin but very near to Cesar Ocampo’s heart. It’s where he was born, where he met his wife and where he plans to start a non-profit organization to help the country’s neediest people while opening their eyes to what he knows best – space.
Ocampo, an aerospace engineer and associate professor at the university, visited schools and rural communities in the Colombian state of Chocó during the summer break, meeting with teachers and introducing students to space and the solar system. Chocó is primarily a dense rain forest region in western Colombia.
“It’s a trip I’ve always wanted to do in part because it truly exemplifies what outreach is about, and because it is a region few dare to visit because of its remoteness and security issues,” Ocampo said. “Everybody said don’t go but things had to get done.”
During the trip Ocampo stayed in Quibdo, the capital of Chocó. He had planned to drive to the city after arriving in nearby Medellin but found it was a 12-hour drive due to the open road terrain and frequent check points guarded by illegally armed groups. He opted for the 30-minute turboprop plane ride instead.
While it may have been a challenge to get to Quibdo, once there he found inspiration in everyone he met – from the small children who sat in a one-room schoolhouse with no electricity yearning to learn to the professors at Chocó’s only university who are searching for ways to better the educational experience for their students.
The classroom visits were exciting for both Ocampo and the students.
“It was an opportunity for them to see a space engineer and for me to spend time with them.”
He dazzled the children at a poor elementary school on the edge of Quibdo with images of the solar system and a chance to try their hand at flying spacecraft and airplanes using a joystick.
“There was a lot of laughing,” he said, “because we all kept crashing.”
In one classroom he visited there was no power, but he knew he needed to give the students the opportunity to see his presentation, so he tapped into a power line outside.
“When you have 50 kids waiting for you, you can’t leave them disappointed,” he said.
During another stop, in a small housing community just north of Quibdo along the Atrato River, Ocampo was able to show students a view of the sun through a solar telescope.