Engineer educates and inspires in Colombia

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.

"The children were in school at the time, but I convinced their teacher to let them out," Ocampo said. "There was no electricity or running water there. They satisfy all their water with the river that flows by."

"It's tragic. (In Austin) when I talk to students I tell them to work hard, be good in math and science and our system will help them. In Colombia I can't say that to them. All I can do is enjoy the one or two hours we are together."

During the short time he had with the children, Ocampo was hoping to inspire at least a few future aerospace engineers.

"You want to let them know there are possibilities and something different out there for them," he said. "I'd be happy if out of several hundred one or two do something meaningful with their lives.

He hopes to spark something inside the children the way he found his way to becoming an aerospace engineer at a young age.

"At age 5 in 1972 I saw the night launch of Apollo 17. That was my spark. It is the same type of spark I would like to provide the children of Chocó," Ocampo said.

The day after watching the launch, Ocampo's parents bought him an astronaut G.I. Joe and he never looked back.

Ocampo has already motivated two engineering students who attend La Universidad Tecnologica del Chocó. Twin brothers Heicer and Heiler Ledezma organized Ocampo's trip to Chocó and dream of one day attending The University of Texas at Austin.

He met the twins while working on a small educational satellite project in Bogota, for which Ocampo was a mentor.

"They were willing to volunteer and do the work for free because they want to learn about satellites," Ocampo said. "I will try hard to bring them here for graduate school but it's tough. They need to learn English first. It's hard for students like them, especially because they are poor."

Meeting Father Cesar August Perea, a human rights leader, was also a high point for Ocampo. The friendship they formed has likely set the course for Ocampo's future outreach work.

"We quickly made a connection and I committed with him to form a non-profit group in Austin so that we can work together in the future to bring hope to the children of Chocó ," Ocampo said.

Working with Father Perea would allow Ocampo to travel further into the rain forest to regions he can't access on his own due to the lack of transportation infrastructure and security issues

"I want to reach out the communities that need supplies and food first," he said, "then we can talk to them about space".

Ocampo plans to go back as early as December to bring backpacks and school supplies to children.