By Benjamin C. Saunders, Jr.

President, Gates County Community Partnership

“The Model – Spearheaded by a passionate entity with knowledge, infrastructure and financial resources. This entity immerses itself into a community and collaborates, developing trusting relationships with its government, schools, and citizens. The programs and services offered by the entity improve circumstance and outlook, broadening horizons and boosting morale, while training and inspiring others within the community to organize and work together for its betterment.”

UNC-Chapel Hill is the flagship of the University of North Carolina System. Its mission is to serve as a center for research, scholarship, and creativity and to teach a diverse community of undergraduate, graduate, and professional students to become the next generation of leaders. It also strives to enhance the quality of life for all people of the state.

The university’s Morehead Planetarium and Science Center adds the goal of serving North Carolina by bringing together the unique resources of the university to engage the public for an improved public understanding of science, technology, and health.

Morehead serves the entire state of North Carolina, but no other school district receives the level of support as Gates County Schools. Morehead has entrenched itself in Gates County, providing educational programming to its students and the community. But why Gates County??

In 2017, Morehead Planetarium and Science Center received funding to expand services in eastern and northeastern North Carolina. They reached out to multiple school districts in the area with minimal response. During the process, Morehead contacted me. I encouraged them to talk to Mr. Jeremy Wright, then the principal of T. S. Cooper Elementary School. The first mobile planetarium visit was scheduled, and things grew from there.

In 2018, Dr. Crystal Harden, the Director of Program and Inclusion Initiatives at Morehead, told me about a program they wanted to start in a rural community in North Carolina, loosely modeled after the science enrichment programs they direct in Chatham and Durham counties. They had a funder who was “all in” on the initiative. I volunteered my assistance and advocated for Gates County. Dr. Harden already recognized that Gates County was the perfect location for this unique opportunity, as a good working relationship existed and the need was substantial.

Later that year, Saunders Science Scholars launched (named for my father, Benjamin C. Saunders, Sr., a lifelong educator in Gates County). The program is a science enrichment initiative that provides resources and events that encourage the exploration of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) to the community of Gates County Schools.

The base program consists of 15-8th graders, 15-9th graders, and at least one supporting adult. They are immersed in STEM. Mentorship will continue through high school graduation and the duration of their college journey, with an expectation of a debt-free post-secondary experience. Activities include monthly science enrichment meetings, science engagement events, college tours, summer camps, and “Science Saturdays”, where Scholars complete community service.

Participating families also gain from the program. They develop a better understanding of science, experience unique family bonding through academia, and realize enhanced social interactions augmented by new experiences.

As part of the Saunders Science Scholars initiative, additional offerings were provided to Gates County and its schools. They include “Science on Your Street” and “Morehead in Motion: Lab to Life”, which encourage students to learn anywhere; “Science Stage”, a program that captivates students and engages audiences in exciting science demonstrations; STEMville Science Symposiums, which expose students to careers in STEM; classroom and educator visits; Duke Energy Family Science Nights; UNC Science Football Tailgates; educator professional development; science equipment donations; and a recent community day acknowledging our citizens for their support.

This summer, Morehead offered several weeks of GSK “Science in the Summer” and Sloan Foundation “Science RISING!” camps at county schools. “Science in the Summer” is an inquiry-based science education program that helps elementary school children grow to love science. “Science RISING!” is an aerospace science program.

Morehead Planetarium and Science Center’s presence enables Gates County Schools to leverage them for additional opportunities. They drive various projects not related to what they provide as a science center. Morehead directed the preparation and submission of the GEAR UP NC grant proposal for Gates County Schools, which was awarded in 2020. The seven-year grant is a national college access initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Its goal is to significantly increase the number of students in disadvantaged communities who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education / college. The grant provides academic readiness and college access support to middle and high school students and engages high school students through a designated full-time college advisor.

Morehead encourages community action for the benefit of Gates County. They stressed the importance of having a partner in Gates County to work with them on local initiatives and serve in the interests of its citizens. From this, Gates County Community Partnership formed “to inspire and increase community engagement by the citizens of Gates County for the educational and social development of its youth.” Speaking as a director of the organization, Morehead Planetarium and Science Center is our guiding light. They actively participate in most of our major projects, often behind the scenes.

Morehead Planetarium and Science Center is indeed “The Gift that Keeps Giving.” And the kicker is, everything that I mentioned, and more, is provided to Gates County and its citizens for free!