Asombro

About Asombro

“Asombro” is the Spanish word for “wonder,” which is exactly what the Asombro Institute brings to the thousands of children and adults who participate each year. The Asombro Institute for Science Education (formerly the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park) is a nonprofit dedicated to increasing natural science literacy through engaging, place-based education.

 

To achieve this mission, we serve more than 22,000 K-12 students and 1,500 adults in New Mexico with hands-on, inquiry-based science education programs each year. Programs take place in classrooms, schoolyards, and at our outdoor classroom, the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park north of Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Staff Members

Stephanie Bestelmeyer, Ph.D.

Executive Director

As the first paid employee of Asombro, Steph has been honored to help Asombro develop into a K-12 science education leader since she was hired in 2000. Steph has a Ph.D. in Biology from Colorado State University and a B.S. in Biology and minor in Teaching from the University of California, San Diego. Her favorite thing about working at Asombro is figuring out ways to translate local science discoveries into hands-on K-12 lessons that engage students. Outside of work, Steph loves hiking, reading, going to plays, baking, and traveling, most often with her husband, son, and dogs.

Kelly Sayanagi

Education Director

Kelly joined Asombro in 2019 and is excited everyday she gets to share her love of science with students. Kelly grew up playing in the mountains of Northern New Mexico before heading to the University of New Mexico to study biology. She spent six years as an environmental educator in classrooms around Albuquerque and on the banks of the Rio Grande, training students to collect and analyze data to understand how local environments are changing. Kelly returned to UNM to further her own understanding of our changing landscapes and earned her Master’s degree in biology researching the impacts of climate change on the Rio Grande cottonwood trees.  As an avid hiker and backpacker she loves the opportunity to explore new parts of the Land of Enchantment, but when she’s not teaching or hiking, Kelly is often found knitting or playing the cello.

Amy Tront

Operations & Communication Coordinator

Amy is an east coast native, spending most of her time in the Washington D.C. area. While serving in the U.S. Air Force, she earned a Master’s degree in Business Administration from Saint Leo University and traveled extensively to the middle east, which launched a love of the desert and prompted a permanent move to the southwest, finally settling in the Land of Enchantment in 2014.  When not at work, you can find Amy volunteering at various local community events, tossing horseshoes, and swimming. She also installed a home camera system just to “catch stills of my hummingbird feeders!”

Ryan Pemberton

Program Leader

Ryan grew up in north-central Texas before attending the University of Georgia to obtain a Bachelor of Science in Forest Resources in Forestry and one in Wildlife & Fisheries Biology. He then went back to University of Georgia to earn his Master of Natural Resources in Environmental Education. He has also worked for Nature Centers teaching all ages about the wonders that can be found in their own backyards and using nature to teach science concepts. Ryan joined the Asombro Institute for Science Education in August 2015. When he is not working, Ryan can be found reading, birding, fishing, or hiking with his dog.

Gabriela Franco

Science Educator

Gabriela is thrilled to share her love of the desert and science with the community.  She grew up in El Paso, Texas, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Biology and found a love of field research while part of an undergraduate research program at the Indio Mountains Research Station near Van Horn. Gabriela continued on to complete a Master of Science in Ecology and Evolutionary Theory in 2015. Her thesis focused on the Ecological Features of the Greater Earless Lizard, she spent many weekends in the field collecting data from pitfall trap arrays and weather stations. She has coordinated mobile museum outreach programs and has 7 years of teaching experience, including public programming for all ages, K-12 classroom visits, and the college-level classroom and laboratory. Gabriela joined Asombro in 2021, and feels like she finally found her dream career. Her favorite thing about working at Asombro is being able to share her passion for our Chihuahuan Desert.

Natalie Wells

Science Educator

Natalie grew up in Las Cruces, and experienced Asombro field trips first-hand as a local middle school student. She went on to earn Bachelor’s degrees in Geography and Spanish from NMSU, and after volunteering for 2 years at the Las Cruces Museum of Nature & Science, returned to NMSU part-time to take courses in math, physics, biology, and astronomy. During this time, she also worked as a research assistant in the Astronomy Department, spending 5 years studying interacting binary stars and galaxy evolution. Natalie joined the Asombro team in 2022 and is excited to be able to continue to share her love of science with her community. When not in the classroom, Natalie enjoys filming and photographing the bugs in her backyard with her pet lizard on her shoulder.

Amanda Mock

Undergraduate Intern

Living in New Mexico has given Amanda many opportunities to explore and grow. She is attending New Mexico State University to study Biology and Biochemistry to get her Bachelor’s Degree. Amanda has loved science for as long as she can remember: starting with her interest in Astronomy and Ecology! Along with these interests is Amanda’s fondness for helping children learn. She coached volleyball to young athletes throughout high school and spent summer as a camp counselor. Amanda enjoyed it so much as she watched the kids she helped grow. That led her to Asombro Institute for Science Education where she can give back to the community she loves. Amanda enjoys drawing to pass the time, especially on rainy days. She also plays volleyball on occasion; her favorite position to play is libero/defensive specialist.

Board Members

Gene Gant

President

Gene was primarily raised in a small town in Kansas. He graduated from Wichita State University in 1972 with a BBA in Economics. Gene retired as an US Army Air Defense Artillery Officer in 1990. Upon retirement from the Army Gene worked in the corporate world until turning sixty-six when he figured there were better things to do with his time and energy. Gene’s main interest has been doing what he can to help students with their education, especially in science and math. In addition to serving on Asombro’s Board of Directors, Gene is also served on the Las Cruces Public Schools Board of Education, NM Public Education Commission, NM Public School Capital Outlay Council, NM State Library Commission, Las Cruces Public Schools Foundation, Board of Directors for the Boys and Girls Club and Jardin de los Ninos and several committees for the Greater Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce.

Justin Van Zee

Vice President

Justin works at the USDA-ARS Jornada Experimental Range as a Soils Biologist in the National Wind Erosion Research Network group, and has been developing rangeland vegetation and soil monitoring methodologies since the mid 1990s. Since 2008 he has collaborated with scientists in Mongolia to develop a national rangeland monitoring system. He deeply believes in service and giving back to the community, and in promoting development of critical thinking skills through exploration, activity, and experimentation in nature. Justin has been volunteering for the Asombro Institute since 1995, assisting staff with curriculum development, teaching at public events, and implementing site development projects at the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park.

Donna Yargosz

Secretary

After teaching for more than 30 years, Donna takes pleasure in giving back to the community alongside people she thinks are terrific. She helps with field trips, classroom lessons, public events, and teacher workshops, as well as translating materials into Spanish and creating new materials.

Mark Sechrist

Treasurer

Mark is an archaeologist who has worked in southern New Mexico, eastern Arizona, and western Texas since 1986. He joined the Asombro board in 2003 because he believes in and is inspired by the success of its mission to bring science education to students through hands-on field experiences.

Gil Tellez

Board Member

Gil is a Master Electrician and Outside Sales Representative at Resource Group. He was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania but was raised in Las Cruces and the Mesilla Valley. Gil has served as Vice President of the National Electrical Contractors Association, as board member for the Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee for electricians, as well as a board member for the new Electrical Golf Association. Whether it is hunting, fishing, camping or motor sports, Gil loves the outdoors and has a strong belief that children who spend time outdoors are healthier in body and mind. Gil contributes his time and knowledge to further the mission of the Asombro Institute and its dedication to increasing scientific literacy.

Carrie Hernandez

Board Member

Carrie is the Associate Director for the Las Cruces Public School’s Teaching, Learning, and Research Division. She leads the Career Readiness and Student Success Program. For nearly 30 years, Carrie has been an educator in diverse locations and situations, including the Las Cruces Public Schools, New Mexico State University, and the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum. She also served for three years in the College and Career Readiness Bureau at the New Mexico Public Education Department.

A Brief History of Asombro

Excerpts from an article by Beth Morgan

“We’re from the land of dusty roads, rattlesnakes, and horny toads,”

,”…or so the song goes. Upon looking a little closer, one sees that there are hawks, owls, rodents, deer, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, mountain lions, insects, and a plethora of plant life. 

Las Cruces City Commissioner Ron Hudson knew this as early as 1978 and sought to capitalize on it with a regional attraction to be called the Las Cruces Nature Park, which he envisioned as being something like the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Tucson. Alamogordo had its zoo. Las Cruces, the second largest city in the state, Hudson thought, needed a place for families to go, too.

In 1999, Jornada Experimental Range scientist Jeff Herrick works with local school children, inspiring them to learn more about desert ecology.

Hudson was one of sixteen original board members working on the project. Supporters incorporated as a non-profit in 1990, with a botanical garden foremost in their plans. They considered several sites, two on the West Mesa, another in the bosque of the Rio Grande, and a 240-acre tract of land near the location where former Doña Ana County Sheriff Pat Garrett was murdered in 1908, south of U.S. Hwy. 70.

In early 1997, the project underwent a name change. Now the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park, the board named herpetologist Paul Hyder the park’s first director. Hyder had been conducting educational programs for the park with area schools for five years. Shortly after this announcement, the park’s location switched to a 1,000-acre tract of land on the southwest border of and in the possession of the USDA/ARS Jornada Experimental Range. The Jornada had been inviting school children out to learn about science for years. As the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park’s goals were along similar lines, it seemed like a win-win situation.

The park’s new director—and first paid staff person— Stephanie Bestelmeyer, was hired in 2000 and soon hosted the Insect Expo 2000. One thousand grade-school students from a dozen area schools registered to learn about insects and arthropods.

With the aid of its volunteers, the park then spent 90 percent of its donations, which came in part from the World Wildlife Fund, Chevron, Bridgebuilders Foundation, and the Native Plant Society of New Mexico, on educational programs. Later in 2000, Bestelmeyer had the opportunity to use a 1,200-sq.-m. parking site for vehicles coming onto the range to repair an oil spill as an experiment site, dividing it into plots for test-plantings of native grass seed. The park had the help of dozens of volunteers to develop the plots. This represented the first attempt at site development for the park and provided a location they planned to use as the first stop for field trips for some 2,000 students each year. 

An Asombro educator teaches about tarantulas during a classroom program in the November 2000.

A view from the winding trails of the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park

The park continued its buggy business, introducing the Butterfly Flutterby in 2002. That year, the Board of Directors noted that Bestelmeyer had expanded the number of students it was serving tenfold: from 1,200 to 12,000. The educational programs had continued to expand and improve, for school children and the public, covering such diverse topics as wildflowers, desert nightlife, bats, weather, and desert ecology.

They built picnic tables and shade structures in 2003. The trails have been developed, and an amphitheater was added in 2005. They had a second employee, Rink Somerday by 2004, and finally, in 2008, the 1,000-acre site was transferred to the park—the same year the organization changed its name to the Asombro Institute for Science Education, with the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park the main venue for its science-based, hands-on educational activities.

As Hudson originally hoped, the park has become a place where families can go. It’s certainly a draw for visitors to the area, a place where they can learn that the desert is not all brown, and it’s not devoid of life. Certainly, with the addition of Asombro’s educational programs for more than 17,000 students each year, the nonprofit has become a major asset to the community—and hopefully will remain so for years to come.

The amphitheater at the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Park was built in 2005.