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Article by George Reed - 1994
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Who in the Hell Needs a Planetarium?

Dr. George Reed
Department of Geology and Astronomy
West Chester University
West Chester, Pennsylvania 19380

[reprinted from the March 1994 issue of the Planetarian]

Planetariums are an expensive addition to any educational institution. No one will argue this point. They are a major financial investment in terms of space, capital funding and continuing operating costs. The intense competition for all three items has created a "survival of the fittest” atmosphere and a "what have you done for me today” mentality. Like it or not, this is the reality of the situation in education today. Because of this we have to ask ourselves how we can justify the initial expense and continuous financial support of a planetarium as part of an educational facility? Part of the answer to the question lies beyond the planetarium dome. It lies in the justification for including science education as part of the mission of the educational institution. How can we justify the expense of science education? Science education is a major investment in space and equipment. The answer to this question lies in the answer to yet another very basic question. How can we justify the expense of any form of education?

There are two very basic reasons for a society to support a system of education. One reason is to assure the orderly transfer of the culture of that society. Students must develop intellectual roots upon which their culture and society rest. They must be exposed to what has been achieved in the past in order to preserve, understand and appreciate their unique position in time and place. The other reason for a society to support a system of education is to insure the future improvement, development and preservation of that society. Students must develop the mental skills to successfully function within their culture.

At the zenith of the mental skills hierarchy is problem solving, and no subject is better able to develop concrete problem-solving skills than science. Science differs from liberal arts subjects in that it has definite and reproducible answers that can be arrived at by a system of cognition. Unfortunately, the process, or problem-solving aspect, of science is too often overlooked in favor of the content or factual aspect of science. And yet it is the problem-solving aspect of science that has, if properly developed in students, the greatest potential for improving and developing a culture.

The development of useful problem-solving skills starts with the simpler skills of observing and categorizing. These skills are then combined with intermediate skills into the higher level skills of inferring, predicting and communicating. Any of the arbitrary divisions of science are suitable for the development of problem-solving abilities, but astronomy has inherent advantages over other disciplines. Astronomy is a subject everyone sees. It deals with the universe beyond everyone’s horizon. And astronomy is a subject that impacts on everyone’s life.

The fascination with the universe beyond the horizon, and this innate curiosity has driven the attempts to interpret the nature of what is observed of the universe beyond the horizon. It has also taught the practical value involved in understanding the movements and appearances of celestial objects. The seasons, the tides, navigation and the establishment of the basic units of time are examples of important celestial influences on culture. More subtle, but profound, influences are found in art, mythology, literature and music. The study and use of what is called astronomy is as old as civilization itself. It is an integral part of the culture to be passed on from one generation to the next. And it is a subject that has consistently maintained a high interest level among students. The major advantage of using astronomy over the other sciences to teach problem-solving skills lies in this inherent interest and the accessibility of the subject.

So how does the planetarium fit into this scheme of things? The current answer is, not well. The planetarium for the most part has become merely a vehicle for the transfer of "astronomical” facts and "space” information. It’s no longer a place where you are allowed to figure something out for yourself. As the technology for this transfer has come to increasingly depend upon high-tech, multimedia over the years, planetariums have come to increasingly assume the role of an, at best, "edu-tainment” provider. Entertainment as education can provide you with the worse of both worlds. School programs are increasingly being replaced with what were once thought of as programs for public consumption. Unfortunately, the role of the planetarium in teaching problem-solving skills has received a decreasing amount of attention over the years, but an opportunity exists to change this situation. It only requires a change of perspective in planetarium programming. If we step back and observe what is happening in a related situation, we may be better able to see what is happening around us. The buzz-word for the 1990s is "virtual reality.” Virtual reality is so new and developing so quickly, its definition hasn’t been totally agreed upon. In broad terms, VR refers to computer-created environments that enable end users to participate in three-dimensional situations in real time. What does VR have to do with the planetarium? As surprising as it may seem, VR, minus its computer component, has been a force in astronomy education since October 21, 1923. On that day the world’s first planetarium show took place at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany. By any functional definition, the planetarium is a virtual reality construct. It is an optical, electrical and mechanical simulation device that projects and moves stars and other celestial objects across a domed ceiling in order to create the illusion of a night or day sky. The planetarium recreates a three-dimensional environment that can be manipulated and experienced in real time. Planetariums can claim to be virtual reality environments with 70 years of experience behind them. This is true until the problem of individuals interacting with the planetarium environment is addressed, then producers of planetarium programs are at the same position today as the producers of new VR systems.

Planetariums and the new virtual reality computer environments face a common problem. How do humans most effectively interact with these environments to satisfy the educational goals for which they are intended. One suggestion would be that planetariums and virtual reality systems can satisfy educational goals most effectively when they are used to create problem-solving situations. They should create questions in the minds of participants and provide them with the tools necessary for solving the problems. They should stimulate thinking and the using of information rather than just the acquisition of information. Information has little value if it isn’t used. From an educational point of view this should be their strength. If they are used to simply transfer information in a high-tech format, then they will be used most ineffectively. In terms of information transfer, both the planetarium and virtual reality systems can be replaced by flat screens and monitors. The affective value of planetarium and virtual reality environmental immersion is admittedly destroyed with the use of flat screens and monitors, but the transfer of information will continue unabated. Information presentation technology, and the number of seats occupied over the fiscal year, seems to be becoming the test of the success of a planetarium. The planetarium can be a unique educational environment. It has a proven long-term charisma that reaches from kindergarten to college to museum audiences. It can occupy a focal position in the education of anyone at any level and at any age. Its potential is limited only by the imagination and training of those responsible for its programming. If the planetarium is used simply and only to disseminate information, then it will ultimately fail. Existing planetariums will be closed and new planetariums will not be built because they will be too expensive to justify. The truth is that information is sterile and boring to those not actively involved in its pursuit or those without a strong interest in a particular field. The transfer of information is the lowest form of education and entertainment. It requires nothing more than a receptive and docile "audience.” Unimaginative, information-laden slide and video shows projected on starfield wallpaper backgrounds only require canned audiences.


As much as we may hate to admit it, the "flat-screen” planetarium is already with us. And as much as we may hate to admit it, "we have met the enemy and they are us,” not technology. The flat-screen planetarium came into existence when planetarium programming fell under the influence of NASA and the space program. When planetarium programming moved away from naked-eye astronomy and basic astronomy and into NASA and space science programming, the need to demonstrate the movement of the sun, moon and planets diminished. The need for even the capability to project a sun, moon and planets diminished. And the need for a domed sky also diminished. The stars were reduced to nothing more than the environmental backdrop for slide and video presentations. Only the darkness of the planetarium chamber was required, and this someone beyond the dome will eventually realize can be achieved in a conventional classroom environment. It will not be a rocket scientist who first asks, "Who the hell needs a planetarium? You can do the same thing in a classroom. And a lot cheaper!” The question will be asked by a bean counter.

In flat screen planetarium programming, opportunities for human participation, interaction and problem-solving activities are not given the high priority they once had. Problem solving has been an important part of planetarium programming in the past and it still is, but to a lesser degree, an important part of planetarium programming today. The first organized effort to use the planetarium as an interactive, problem-solving environment began with the Lawrence Hall of Science in the 1970’s with the Participatory Oriented Planetarium (POP) movement. The participatory philosophy required a hands-on approach to visitors learning about the subject matter of a program. Seeing and hearing were replaced by doing and talking. Unlike conventional canned programs, participatory programs can not exist without an audience. Unfortunately, the demands of the participatory approach in terms of trained quality staff has moved the approach almost exclusively into the domain of the small inflatable planetarium. And even here there are signs of movement away from audience participation.

Computer technology provided the second most important attempt to use the planetarium as an interactive environment in the form of the audience responder system. Pioneered by the Armagh Planetarium in Northern Ireland, computer video interface response systems allow audiences to control the sequencing of planetarium programs by selection buttons on their armrests. At prescribed times in this form of participatory program, the audience is asked to express a destination or subject preference. A computer then tallies and displays the combined results and instructs a videodisc player to proceed according to the wishes of the majority. Unfortunately, majority rule forms of interactive programming can be replicated by an audience of trained monkeys since the programming sequences do not require intelligent responses based upon informed decisions. Opportunities for teaching problem solving and engaging an audience intellectually abound within an audience response system planetarium environment, but in the few response systems in existence today, problem solving is seemingly not being addressed.

Audience response system programs that require informed decisions are more difficult to produce because they demand the creation of situations that will engage an audience’s intellect and the ability to understand an audience’s response to a given stimulus. They involve an understanding of the teaching-learning process beyond "show and tell.” If such systems are to increase, and if planetariums with such systems are to survive, the effort to produce planetarium programs that challenge audiences must be expended.

The misdirection of contemporary state-of-the-art planetarium programming in all types of planetariums, in terms of higher level educational goals, can not be blamed on the involved technology. The misdirection is the result of not using this technology to its best advantage. It is the result of an industry-wide prevailing attitude toward programming that places little intellectual demand on audiences.

What is the purpose of the planetarium instrument, the most expensive piece of equipment in the facility, if it is not used as an astronomical simulator? In many cases, the existence of the planetarium projector is merely a justification for calling the facility a "planetarium.” Is this an exaggeration? I don’t think so. When was the last time you saw a planetarium program that used the sun? The moon? The planets? Or the stars as anything more than a backdrop to the real subject of the program? The planetarium is at the proverbial fork in the road and the choice is clear. It is not a simple choice between an intellectual surrendering to the supposed driving forces of new technologies, or a return to the dreaded "lecture under the stars” format of yesterday. It is a choice of how to most effectively use the new technologies to attain stated goals. It is a choice between returning to the human interaction activity-based astronomy education programming and live night sky formats that created the initial educational appeal of the planetarium, or abandoning the domed planetarium in favor of passive, flat screen, multimedia slide-video shows. If we don’t make the correct choice, the bean counters will make it for us,

Reprinted from the Planetarian, Vol 23, #1, March 1994. Copyright 1994 International Planetarium Society. For permission to reproduce please contact Executive Editor, Sharon Shanks.

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