Print Page   |   Contact Us   |   Sign In   |   Join

Article by Jim Manning - 1999
Share |

The Role of Planetariums in Astronomy Education

An Address to the Education Symposium of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific
June 24, 1995

James. G. Manning
President, International Planetarium Society
Taylor Planetarium
Museum of the Rockies
Bozeman Montana 59717

Good afternoon.

In the 1940's, chemical engineer and philanthropist John Motley Morehead approached the eminent Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley with a question. Morehead wanted to build either an observatory or a planetarium for the children of his native North Carolina, and he asked Shapley which the astronomer would recommend. Shapley suggested that a planetarium would be better-because he felt the people of North Carolina were among the "most astronomically ignorant" people in the United States.

Morehead responded that if Shapley would amend his statement to say that the people of North Carolina were among the "most ignorant in astronomical matters," he would build a planetarium. Shapley did, and Morehead did, and the rest is history-46 years of history, to be precise, during which more than four million people have been introduced to the wonders of the universe at the Morehead Planetarium-thanks to the hard work of two generations of planetarium staff.

In many ways, the Morehead story is not unique; planetariums for decades have been created to serve the cause of astronomical enlightenment-to offer people knowledge and understanding and a sense of place in a universe far bigger than themselves. It's an important role and one that we continue to play-changing, we hope, as times, technology, education, and our view of the universe change.

To best appreciate the role of planetariums, it's important first to understand the broad reach that they have today. Consider these facts and figures

The first projection planetarium was demonstrated by the Zeiss Optical Company at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany in 1923. It was permanently installed there in 1925-70 years ago. By 1970-the height of the Apollo moon program-there were an estimated 700 to 800 planetariums in the world, half of them less than six years old, constructed during the peak years of the Space Race. Today, 25 years later, that number has more than doubled to a little over 2,000.

Based on figures compiled in the 1994 IPS Planetarium Directory, we find that slightly more than half of the world's planetariums are located in North America, with large numbers in Asia and Europe, and relatively few in other parts of the world. If we consider distribution by country, we find that half are in the United States, more than 300 are in Japan, and Germany ranks third with nearly 100. Nineteen countries have ten or more planetariums.

Some 33 percent of these planetariums are located in primary or secondary schools; 17 percent are at colleges and universities; 15 percent are part of museums and science centers; 7 percent are associated with observatories or other institutions; the settings of the remaining 27 percent are uncertain, but would probably be distributed among the other categories.

Housed within these planetariums are a variety of star projectors: Spitz models like the one seen here familiar dumbbell shapes as in this model Zeiss the more recent single-sphere type, in this case, the Minolta Infinium projector the fisheye lens of the Evans & Sutherland Digistar computer graphics system. The theaters themselves vary greatly as well, ranging from small and cozy-this theater sporting a Goto instrument to the cavernous tilted-dome theaters, this one housing a Goto Helios projector to hundreds of portable theaters like Starlab, operating around the world in addition to the 2,000 fixed theaters, bringing astronomy directly to schools, auditoriums, shopping centers, and other venues.

In all of these theaters with all of these instruments in all parts of the world, it has been estimated that 20 million people visit planetariums each year. Personally, I believe this estimate is low. But if one takes it at face value, assuming an average of 10,000 visitors per planetarium per year, and calculates backward over seventy years, one ends up with more than 450 million people served since the first planetarium opened at the Deutsches Museum. Even for McDonald's, that's a lot of hamburgers!

Clearly, planetariums represent one of the biggest and most visible avenues for presenting astronomy and related subjects to the public-surpassable perhaps only by television. This gives planetariums an enormous potential for supporting both formal and informal astronomy education.

In defining the role that planetariums play, it's useful to review their strengths. We all know that planetariums can reproduce the night sky for any place on earth on any day of the year for many years past and future, creating a view that simulates the three-dimensional "backyard" sky. And that they can accurately reproduce the apparent motions and cycles of the sky-in speeded-up fashion so people can see what happens over time. But planetariums also create environments that encompass the audience, bringing them into the experience in a way that classroom, book, television or computer screen cannot. They can combine and effectively use audiovisual technology to help create these experiences. And they possess tremendous flexibility in how these audiovisual resources can be used.

It is these strengths which allow the planetarium to effectively demonstrate astronomical principles and to present and reinforce concepts and information in ways that other media cannot. And we take advantage of these strengths in the goals that we set for ourselves.

First and foremost, we strive to educate, in ways ranging from curriculum-based school lessons to popular-level programs. We also strive to enlighten, which I think is not quite the same as to educate; we want people not just to know but to understand and to incorporate this understanding in their lives. And yes, many of us also try to entertain-on the principle that you catch more flies with honey, that learning ought to be fun, and that people probably learn more when they're enjoying themselves. And not least, we strive to inspire. Our time with people is brief, and it is perhaps less important that someone remembers the diameter of Jupiter than that he or she remembers Jupiter as a neat planet, and buys a book or enrolls in a class or comes to the next star party to learn more-or takes time to look for it on the next clear night.

In setting these goals, planetariums operate in all three realms of learning: in the thought-processing of the cognitive realm; increasingly in the psychomotor area as we offer more interactive experiences involving physical action; and we also operate in the affective realm, the realm of feelings, as we encourage greater appreciation and enjoyment of the sky and try to cultivate a sense of the adventure of science.

We meet these challenges in as many ways as there are planetariums. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this point is to present a small sampling of the things planetariums and planetarians are doing around the world.

The so-called "star show" continues to be our stock-in-trade, offered in a variety of forms, from the traditional live-narrated current-sky program to automated multimedia presentations on popular space-related topics. Most of us also present educational programs specifically designed for school grades to meet science curriculum objectives. Where possible and appropriate, we often key on current news and icons to attract visitors and send our messages: this poster announces a show we presented at the Taylor Planetarium at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, in conjunction with the Columbus quincentennial; the Hayden Planetarium in New York has developed children's programs featuring Star Wars' C-3P0 and R2-D2 and the Muppets, which I understand are very well-attended.

Supporting our efforts are improving technologies. The new planetarium at the Forum Der Technik in Munich has a new Zeiss Model VII projector, which uses fiber optics to create stars that look like true points of light, creating an exceptionally realistic-looking starfield. The Digistar computer graphics system allows the audience to travel through a stellar data base in "Star Trek" fashion, can show the proper motion of the stars over hundreds of thousands of years, and creates many other three-dimensional learning opportunities.

This is how the interior of the London Planetarium looked a few years ago; just this week, it reopened after extensive renovations that retired its aging projector, replacing it with a Digistar and other new technology to carry it forward into the new millennium. And the new planetarium at Brevard Community College in Cocoa, Florida is the first in the world to have two planetarium projection systems: a Minolta Infinium to produce a crisp starfield, and a Digistar for 3-D simulations and computer graphics. Wherever and whenever possible, planetariums are updating themselves with new technology to better meet their goals and serve their public.

Computer systems are increasingly in use in planetariums today, both to control the planetarium projector and to automate auxiliary effects in programs. Video projection, pioneered by such planetariums as the Armagh Planetarium in Northern Ireland and seen here at the Munich Planetarium, is becoming an audiovisual staple. Some planetariums such as the Hayden have access to Silicon Graphics workstations for creating animated video sequences for their programs and for distribution to other facilities.

Slide projection is still a mainstay of planetariums, but in a variety of forms: images zoom and slew and create panoramic scenes, and so-called "All-Sky" projections engulf the audience in all-dome images-a cathedral in the Munich Planetarium or the Eagle Nebula at Hayden. This image is one of astronomer David Malin's photographs, which are distributed as all-sky sets by Sky-Skan, Inc., one of a number of companies offering products and services to the world-wide planetarium community.

At the South African Museum Planetarium in Cape Town, Anthony Fairall also uses a Silicon Graphics workstation to manipulate data into all-sky images-this a pie-wedge section of the radio sky and this a pie-wedge section of the distribution of galaxies out to 250 million light years as seen from the southern hemisphere. Galaxies are color-coded white to blue to indicate distance, and Tony is working on a color-coded version that-when used with ChromaDepth glasses available from a laser company called Audio-Visual Imagineering-will produce a three-dimensional effect to demonstrate the clumping of galaxies. Mickey Schmidt at the Air Force Academy Planetarium in Colorado Springs has created a Digistar data-base of these galaxies that can be flown through.

Planetariums such as the Hansen Planetarium in Salt Lake City, the Buhl in Pittsburgh, and the Munich Planetarium have installed a kind of interactive technology: seat buttons which allow the audience to vote on a choice of space destinations or topics within a program, and respond to questions.

Hands-on experiences are manifesting themselves in more traditional ways as well, especially in school programming. The Holt Planetarium at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California, has been a pioneer in interactive programming; its activity guide series called PASS-Planetarium Activities for Student Success, created by Alan Friedman and Alan Gould and others-is currently being translated into Japanese for use in that country's many planetariums. Among its myriad activities are lessons involving the identification of features on the moon and the use of models to demonstrate the moon's phases.

Sheldon Schafer at the Lakewood Museum Planetarium in Peoria, Illinois, creates mysteries in which the time of the crime and the culprit can be determined by knowing when and where certain constellations appear in the sky. At the Suginami Science Center in Tokyo, Shoichi Itoh engages students in discovery through lessons in which they photograph the planetarium starfield, create planetariums of their own, and find the constellations on their own using star maps.

Jeanne Bishop at the Westlake Schools Planetarium in Westlake, Ohio, reports that several Cleveland area planetariums are outfitting a Mobile Observatory with telescopes and computers for use by students; Jeanne plans to have some of her astronomy students prepare and conduct interactive lessons for elementary students using this equipment. And the staff at the Air Force Academy Planetarium uses its facility extensively for hands-on lessons of a special kind: Air Force cadet training in topics ranging from aeronautics to survival skills using a compass and the planetarium sky.

In all of these educational efforts, planetarians work to meet the local and regional science curriculum objectives to be relevant to schools. Planetarium educators have thus been interested reviewers of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences' draft proposal for national science education standards, which advocate, among other things, universal curriculum goals, activity-based teaching, emphasis on scientific inquiry, and improved teacher preparation and resources. A similar movement is currently afoot in Europe, with key participation by planetarians.

While our primary focus remains astronomy education, we've also come to realize that our planetariums have evolved into multimedia environments capable of performances in the arts and humanities as well-as this flyer from Morehead demonstrates. Musical concerts, poetry under the stars, and actors in performance are periodic additions to many planetarium's schedules. And the Hansen Planetarium staff can tell some hair-raising tales about Van de Graaff generators! At the Taylor Planetarium, we've had storyteller Lynn Moroney in performance under the stars, telling Native American sky tales. And at Hayden, Bill Gutsch and staff have produced live performances of African songs, dances, and sky stories.

The most ubiquitous of these special programs is the laser light show featured at many planetariums, drawing in non-traditional audiences to be introduced to the planetarium and encouraged to attend other offerings. But even the laser is being diversified in its use: facilities such as the Adler Planetarium in Chicago use them regularly in their astronomy programs. Jack Dunn at the Mueller Planetarium in Lincoln, Nebraska, has developed a program for people with visual impairments such as retinitis pigmentosa, using the intense light of lasers to create starfields and visual effects that give them back a night sky they thought was to them lost forever.

And the Hayden Planetarium in New York employs the Omniscan system developed by Audio-Visual Imagineering, in which laser light is projected through a wide-angle lens to create all-dome laser images for use in star shows ranging from grids to astronomical effects.

But the efforts of planetariums extend to more than just the star theater; astronomy classes, seminars, and workshops regularly combine classroom, planetarium, and outdoor learning at many of our facilities. Teacher workshops offer in-service training and resource materials to teachers of all grades; this one took place in a tipi at the Museum of the Rockies' paleontology field camp, and included work in a portable Starlab and observations under a pristine Montana sky.

At places like the Museum of the Rockies, outreach efforts are vitally important. We live in a big state with a sparse and scattered population, much of which lies too far away to come for a visit. So we go to them-shipping four Starlab planetariums around Montana with lessons, for which we offer periodic training sessions, and which have served well over 100,000 people-mostly students-in the last eight years. We also ship small traveling telescope trunks to schools; these trunks contain Edmund Astroscans with instructions and exercises for learning about telescopes and observing the real sky.

Starlabs and other portable planetariums are often used by facilities that have no fixed planetarium facility, widening the reach of astronomy educators. Sue Reynolds in New York heads an IPS committee which regularly collects and distributes tips and educational exercises to assist portable planetarium users in their efforts.

Having already referred several times to telescopes, I should point out that planetarians recognize that one of our primary objectives is to teach people with our simulated skies so that they can better understand and enjoy the real one outside. Many planetariums have telescopes associated with their facilities, and even more have regular programs of real-sky observation. During the day, we show people the sun using safe methods, and at night we have star parties, helping them find their around the sky and showing them cosmic sights for real.

And at the Buhl Planetarium at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, Martin Ratcliffe uses the Internet to link students with the Mount Wilson Observatory in California, letting them control one of the telescopes there and engage in research projects.

And of course, when special events come around, we generally pull out all the stops; we were there with large audiences watching the remarkable discoveries of the Voyagers as they happened we were a big part of Halley-mania a decade ago and got lots of people looking at the sky and managed to impress quite a few with views of Comet Shoemaker-Levy Nine's revenge on Jupiter last summer.

Planetarium efforts also extend to exhibits. For example, last summer our staff curated an exhibit called "Pioneering Space" at our Museum, built around NASA scale models and chronicling the history of the U.S. manned space program. A few steps away, people could see a complementary program called "The Final Frontier" in the planetarium. Many planetariums have extensive exhibitions to solidify the astronomy experience-just two that leap instantly to mind are the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and the Adler with its marvelous collection of antique instruments.

The Lakeview Museum Planetarium in Peoria has developed a scale model of the solar system that has made the Guinness Book of World Records. The planetarium dome represents the sun, and scale models of the planets are placed at locations throughout the city and beyond-with Pluto 40 miles away! This July, the museum is sponsoring a bicycle ride from the sun to the planets, certain to give participants a unique perspective on the solar system!

And while all of this is going on, we regularly check our sources for the latest-breaking information from the universe to pass on to the public. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore has been particularly helpful in supplying planetarians with the latest materials and information on the remarkable discoveries of Hubble, and has assisted prominently in the development of several planetarium shows on the subject. More and more planetarians are blasting in cyberspace as well, sharing information and snaring resources from NASA and other places, all of which help us to do our jobs.

We also help each other through organizations such as the International Planetarium Society and its eighteen affiliated planetarium associations world-wide. The affiliates meet annually and IPS biennially, bringing together planetarium professionals and astronomy educators to discuss and debate the issues which concern us, to share ideas and experiences, to examine the latest products and technologies, to see what others are doing in their planetariums, and to support and encourage each other in our work.

Recent meetings have been held in the mountains overlooking Salt Lake City and at Cocoa Beach, Florida. We meet next year in Japan, hosted by the Science Museum of Osaka, and in 1998 we travel to London where we will be hosted by the London Planetarium.

The exchange continues between meetings through affiliate newsletters and The Planetarian, the IPS Journal edited by John Mosley. IPS also engages in special initiatives and special publications-one of the most prominent of which is the biennial directory of world planetariums, which facilitates communication among planetarians around the globe.

Well-I hope this small sampling from just a few planetariums helps to give some dimension to the role of planetariums in supporting formal and informal astronomy education. Our challenge is how to use this resource most effectively to help solve some of the problems outlined here today. But if this is where we are-where will we be going in the future?

Prediction is always tricky, but if I had to, I would summarize future trends in eight words-which I think not only reflect trends in education, technology, and society, but which will also be survival strategies for at least the near term.

Diversification: it will become increasingly important for planetariums to diversify their activities and offerings appropriately to serve and maintain the widest possible constituency and to support their operations.

Technology: we can't compete with an $80 million Spielberg movie, nor should we really try, but we can employ new technologies to enhance our strengths and improve the quality of both our education and our productions. Updating our facilities where and when we can will be important.

Basics: nothing can currently beat the planetarium in its ability to demonstrate basic astronomical principles and simulate the backyard sky. This will be of vital importance especially to school planetariums and planetariums with a large student clientele. People will still need to know the basics.

Interactive: hands-on, activity-based programs will become increasingly important in meeting science curriculum objectives. People learn better by doing, and planetariums will be getting on board that bandwagon in greater numbers.

Multidisciplinary: schools and governments are working increasingly toward the integration of science and math and science disciplines to better prepare students for real-world experiences. The advantage of the planetarium is that it can synthesize these disciplines, relating astronomy not only mathematics and the other sciences, but even to history, the arts, and language. This will be a strength.

Multicultural: as our societies become more diverse and the modern world shrinks even further, it will continue to be important to learn about other cultures. Everybody's got sky stories and most have astronomical histories, and the planetarium will continue to serve a role here.

Outreach: the ability to serve constituencies outside of the star theater will become increasingly important as a way to diversify, to broaden our reach, and to maintain visibility. But it may work in the other direction, too, as research grants increasingly require an education or outreach component which planetariums may be able to help fulfill.

Financing: many planetariums will continue to have to scramble for the dollar or peso or ruble that keeps them open and operating. We will be probably be looking increasingly to grants, endowment opportunities, and other fundraising methods to maintain our operations.

And finally, I might add one more word-perhaps less a prediction than a hope. And that word is partnership. I hope that the community of planetariums and the communities of scientists, educators, and astronomy groups will continue to forge closer ties and open new avenues of dialogue-as represented by this symposium. I think it would be of mutual benefit, and would help to advance our common goals.

The Englishman Thomas Carlyle once lamented: "Why did not somebody teach me the constellations, and make me at home in the starry heavens, which are always overhead, and which I don't know half to this day?" Well, planetariums have been doing just that for the last 70 years.

Not only do we teach people the constellations and their age-old stories; we teach them about the stars that comprise them how they came to be, how they live and die that some of them, like the sun, may have planets that they are part of a vast family called the Milky Way just one galaxy among billions wheeling through the universe.

We teach them the cycles of the sky, and about the wanderers we find there and why the earth is a special place and worth taking care of.

We explain the tools and methods which help us to think what we think and know what we know We tell them where we've been and where we may go in the future We remind people that they, too, can explore the space frontier-as future scientists, or astronauts, or one day as the voting public that will decide how far and fast we will go. Our task is to help make those decisions enlightened ones.

In the planetarium profession, ours is not so much the astronomy of research and discovery as it is the astronomy of interpretation and enlightenment. We help to bridge the distance between the scientist and the public, between the individual and the universe. We strive to channel human reaction to the pretty lights in the sky into a deeper understanding of the universe from which we spring.

This is the role we play, every day, each in our own way, in two thousand planetariums across the planet. More than 450 million served and counting one show ticket, one class enrollment, one peep through a telescope, one person-one glimmer of understanding-at a time.

Thank you.

Reproduced from the Planetarian, Vol. 24 #4, December 1995. Copyright 1995 International Planetarium Society. For permission to reproduce please contact Executive Editor, Sharon Shanks.
Sign In

Sign In securely

Haven't joined yet?

Latest News

4/22/2017 » 4/23/2017
PlanIt XXXII National Conference

4/29/2017 » 5/1/2017
GDP Annual Meeting

5/12/2017 » 5/14/2017
APLF Yearly Meeting

5/17/2017 » 5/20/2017
11th annual International Jena FullDome Festival

International Planetarium Society, Inc   
c/o Ann Bragg, Treasurer   
Marietta College, 215 Fifth Street   
Marietta, Ohio 45750 USA