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England native ups Academy planetarium’s STEM center to next level

The Air Force Academy’s planetarium project manager grew up in Ashtead, Surrey, a village 25 miles southwest of London. Her father was an art director and her mother ran the home. She loved learning and channeled her father’s drive to succeed. At 10-years-old, following her father’s death, she applied to a prestigious all-girls private school where she earned a full scholarship. Now, she could make her father proud.

Judy Cara may have grown up in England, but a young Marine serving at the embassy, where they both worked, stole her heart and they moved to the U.S. She now lives just three miles south of Falcon Stadium with her second husband, Jim.

“When I visited the London Planetarium as a child, I never dreamed that one day I’d be managing the planetarium and STEM center at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs,” Cara said.

As a young scholar and avid traveler, she specialized in languages including French, German, Spanish, Latin and English, dropping science and math classes as soon as she could to focus her studies on the arts.

“Imagine my horror when I joined the Intel Corporation and was asked to promote STEM education,” she said. “Fortunately, by working with schools and higher education institutions across [Colorado], I saw the impact we could have by encouraging young people to gain the skills they need to have successful careers and financial self-sufficiency.”

Students from St. Paul Catholic School in Colorado Springs wave for the camera following the planetarium’s “Dream Big: Engineering our World” show at the Air Force Academy, Colo., Oct. 25, 2019. The school’s STEM teacher said the experience was incredible and inspiring and the new multimedia capabilities of the planetarium captivated him and the students. (U.S. Air Force photo by Trang Le)

Students from St. Paul Catholic School in Colorado Springs wave for the camera following the planetarium’s “Dream Big: Engineering our World” show at the Air Force Academy, Colo., Oct. 25, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Trang Le)

Last year, a group of students from St. Paul Catholic School in Colorado Springs, Colorado, came for the planetarium’s “Dream Big: Engineering our World” show.

“The experience the Academy provided was of incredible value to all of us,” said Mike Ferguson, the school’s STEM teacher. “The video was inspiring and the new multimedia capabilities of the planetarium were so captivating.”

The upgrades did not happen by accident—Cara orchestrated the biggest makeover the institution has seen at the planetarium since its debut 60 years ago following a 15-year closure and $5 million renovations.

“It’s very gratifying to have a position that makes people happy and has the potential to influence the direction a young person may take,” Cara said. “I find it really important to constantly improve the planetarium’s offerings to keep young people and our visitors engaged in our programming.”

Not only is she engaging with students, parents and visitors alike, she’s working behind the scenes with show distributors and the Academy’s foundation to keep the center’s education at the forefront of regional programs.

“We received a grant from the ‘Dream Big’ show’s distributor to encourage schools to bring their students to see this STEM film,” she said. “They awarded this grant based on my own enthusiasm for the film.”

So far, eight schools have brought 444 students to see the Dream Big program and in 2019, the planetarium hosted 135 school groups totaling 1,842 students.

“It has been an honor for me to be involved in the final stages of the planetarium’s renovation, managing its opening and the first ten months of operations,” Cara said. “Before I came on board, there were many others who laid the groundwork for this project, directed the first stages of the renovation and donated the funds for it to happen. After the opening, it became apparent many of our community’s families have a special place in their hearts for this institution. They remember coming to the planetarium with their parents or grandparents to see shows and, in fact, it influenced their decisions to apply to the Academy or pursue a STEM career.”

More than five decades after his death, Cara makes her father proud every day and continues his legacy of hard work and dedication he inspired in her at a young age.

“Although my father died when I was young, he continues to inspire me,” she said. “As the son of a bus driver, he had a modest upbringing and didn’t attend university. Yet he had a very successful career, teaching me to seize every opportunity to learn, grow and stretch to reach my goals.”

Are you interested in visiting the planetarium or watching the Dream Big shows on Mondays at 12:30 p.m.? Check out the website at https://www.usafa.edu/planetarium/ or contact Judy Cara by phone at 719-333-3361 or by email at planetarium@usafa.edu.