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The Harry C. Vaughan Planetarium Is a Gateway to Science

Vaughan Planetarium

The Harry C. Vaughan Planetarium Is a Gateway to Science

There’s a crisis in science education. A mere thirty-five percent of U.S. eighth graders are proficient in math, and that number is thirty-two percent for science.

Yet demand for those in science careers has never been higher—eight out of ten of the most in-demand jobs are in the sciences, and science opportunities are growing at twice the rate of non-science jobs.

And, so, one of the best things we can do for our future and for our kids is to hook them on science early. That’s where the Harry C. Vaughan Planetarium—newly renovated with a gift from Vaughan’s Windy Ridge Foundation—comes in.

“The planetarium provides unique training opportunities for our students and undoubtedly sparks an interest in science in the next generation,” says Danny Dale, chair of the Physics and Astronomy department. “That’s the importance, as I see it. You get kids hooked on dinosaurs and maybe space travel or astronauts and then they realize that ‘science is something I can do for a career. I’m going to take science and math when I’m in school and get prepared for college.’”

Dale adds, “The planetarium is a gateway to overall science because the public gets so interested in seeing, for example, pictures from the Hubble space telescope or hearing about the discovery of planets outside our own solar system. It’s just intrinsically fascinating to many people.”

“The planetarium is really one of the best ways to learn about astronomy in an interesting and fun way,” says Tyler Ellis, an Astronomy and Physics undergraduate who has been giving planetarium shows for the last few years. “Down here it’s casual and people can ask questions. We care about the audience. We want them to go away having learned something, having a greater appreciation for the sciences.”

‘An IMAX Theater’

Harry Vaughan’s Windy Ridge Foundation gift of $875,000, plus a $350,000 endowment doubled by state matching, has transformed the facility to provide immersive 3-D media experiences, and traditional star shows have been replaced with far more interactive presentations, similar to an IMAX theater.

These renovations make it possible to bring astronomy to life.

Planetarium patrons zoom through space at warp speed, fly by Jupiter and the other gas giants in our solar system, zip past Pluto, and pass through the outer asteroid belt and beyond our own Milky Way to explore distant supernovae, gigantic black holes, and the formation of galaxies in the farthest reaches of the universe.

“The power of the digital planetarium is that you can teach astronomy concepts a lot easier because they are rooted in a three-dimensional space,” says Dale. “In the old planetarium, you could only understand things two-dimensionally. Our traditional view is from planet Earth's surface, where you can only see objects moving across the two-dimensional sky. It’s hard to understand, for example, why Mars appears to occasionally move backward. With a digital planetarium, it’s much easier to simulate leaving Earth and understanding astronomical motions from a three-dimensional perspective.”

Kids Love the Stars

Kids are especially fascinated. 

“Some of my favorite groups are second and third graders because they just think it’s so cool and they ask so many questions because they’re not shy or anything like that,” says Travis Laurance, planetarium director.

Ellis agrees: “What I really like is when school groups come in. Occasionally, in a second or third grade class, I’ll get one kid who just knows everything I’m saying and it just blows my mind because this is something I hadn't even known was an actual area of study until much later than third grade.”

Dale and Ellis became interested in astronomy in much the same way as today’s kids.

In Dale’s case, it was the subject matter that hooked him. “I got interested in science when I saw Star Wars when I was a little kid.”

In Ellis’s case, it was a teacher who made all the difference: “I actually got into astronomy because of my tenth grade science teacher. She cut a week or so off from every other section and then took those three weeks and put it into astronomy. That was the first time I ever had a class on it and it was really cool.”

Astronomy Asks the Big Questions

What is it about astronomy?  Ellis says: “Astronomy asks some of the biggest questions that we can think of. Where did Earth come from? Where did the universe itself come from? Where is it headed?”

Astronomy is unique among the sciences for its methods. Ellis adds, “If you were to use any of the methods we use in astronomy, it just wouldn't’t work elsewhere. Sometimes a factor of ten accuracy is good enough, but your doctor doesn't’t say, ‘Oh, your tenth heart is failing.’”

And it has always been important. In the past, it allowed us to measure our world.

“Astronomy is the first science, really,” Dale says. “Thousands of years ago, we watched the night skies and developed stories about constellations, which helped us learn when the seasons were progressing and when to plant your crops and when to harvest your crops. They were navigational tools, as well.”

“And the sense of the Earth moving,” adds Laurance. “You definitely get a better sense of how the Earth moves and how the night sky moves.”

However, the study of astronomy study has since been replaced with clocks, calendars, and GPS.

“If you ask a Papua New Guinean which way is north, they will immediately point exactly to north,” says Dale. “But if you ask the typical American, they might first look at their phone compass app.  That ingrained connection to Earth is completely gone, except for in more primitive cultures.”

He adds, “Most of humanity lives in urban areas, and so people don’t even see the Milky Way anymore. Maybe if a person from Wyoming is reading this, they’re a little quizzical about that statement, but it’s true.”

Sold Out Shows

The planetarium primarily serves those in southern Wyoming and northern Colorado, including school groups and the general public.  The Friday night public shows have been sold out since the planetarium’s reopening.

The very first shows in the newly renovated space were for Johnson Junior High in Cheyenne.  Its 300-400 kids attended nine shows over three days—all for free, with the help of the Windy Ridge Foundation. In fact, the gift has made all shows free for school kids.

The interactive shows are put on by undergraduates, as well as high school and graduate students, who are paid for their work. “The shows are basically presentations that undergraduates put together,” says Laurance. “They put together a theme and how best to present that theme.”

“It’s my underhanded strategy to recruit more physics teaching majors,” Dale adds with a laugh.

Shows have included a wide range of topics, including the mythology of constellations, how to build a solar system, southern constellations, and much more. Future shows include the eclipse that will be visible in Wyoming in 2017.

It’s All About the Teaching

What motivates Dale, Laurance, and Ellis? Teaching, they say.

“I’m here because I like teaching people, especially young people,” says Dale. “Bringing in people who are excited to think about the night sky and then showing them something that blows them away, that they haven’t considered before—that’s at the heart of why I’m here.”

Laurance agrees: “For me, it’s helping people understand that they really are smart, that they really can understand this stuff. Sometimes they might come in here and think it’s a little over their heads. And if doing the show you can sneak in a few scientific concepts that they can understand, that’s very satisfying. Make them feel like, ‘Oh yeah, I understand this. I can explain this to my friend.’ They can be the smart person.” 

Ellis agrees. “It’s cool to finally be able to share my love and interest in galaxies with the people in the planetarium.”

Ellis is a great example of someone who was hooked on science and it became his career. He graduates in May and is applying to graduate schools.

His advice to other students interested in the sciences? Get really good at computers.

And this: “The important thing is, if you want to do anything, make it your life.  Your other interests are really good, and it may not sound like the best advice to just close yourself off from doing sports or whatever, but if you really love math and science, that’s what you have to really focus on.” 


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