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The Best Planetarium

The Planetarian, March 2000, Vol. 29, No. 1, p. 65 Jane's Corner

The Best Planetarium in the Whole World

Goto Mercury star projector

by Jane Hastings,
Thomas Jefferson Planetarium,
4100 West Grace Street,
Richmond, Virginia 23230

I have visited many planetariums in the last 30 years; I would like to reveal my selection for "The Best Planetarium in the Whole World." I know what you're thinking; I haven't seen them all. Please hear me out, I think you'll agree.

I'll tell you right away so you won't have to guess. It's the Holt Planetarium at the Lawrence Hall of Science (LHS), in Berkeley, California, built in 1973, under its first director, Alan Friedman. Planetarian Alan Gould is its current director. Let's go inside and see what qualifies Holt as "the best". As you enter the planetarium, you are struck with the smallness of it. It has a 6.8-meter dome, a Goto Mercury planetarium projector, and one circular set of benches. The benches seat approximately 25 (a few more children). The benches are so close to the inside circular wall that when you are seated, your head is slightly outside the dome circumference. Above and behind your head, on the wall, hang clipboards on nails and orange-colored dimmable lights which shine down on you.

The console is in the center of the room. The operator walks around the room in a narrow circular path found between himself and the feet of the seated patrons. No automation is evident; lots of toggle switches show on one side of the console. Two switches operate a cassette tape player and a CD player hooked up to two modest speakers. Other switches toggle a video projector, four slide projectors, and a couple of special effects projectors, all mounted in the center of the room somehow.

Where's the laser, all-sky, panorama projectors, surround sound, exploding supernova? How could this be the "Best Planetarium in the Whole World?"

This planetarium is a laboratory; a place in which to try out things which benefit all planetariums worldwide. It's inhabited by energetic go-getters who are anxious to be involved in projects to improve learning and science/math literacy. To that end, the LHS Holt Planetarium has been partners with several NASA and other federal programs including:

  • NASA's Science Education Gateway (SEGway) project which produced middle and high school Internet lessons; [http://cse.ssLberkeley.edu/SEGway]
  • NASA's Sun-Earth Connection Forum which is producing a lesson on seasons and a planetarium show about the Northern Lights;
  • Center for Particle Astrophysics project which sponsored the creation of a planetarium program "Mysteries of the Missing Matter" (about dark matter);
  • Hands-On Universe project which allows student access to an automated telescope, and enables students to use image processing software on downloaded images;
  • An Integral relationship with the Great Explorations in Math and Science (GEMS) curriculum development project which has produced these teacher guides: Earth, Moon and Stars, Moons of Jupiter, More than Magnifiers, Color Analyzers, Experimenting with Model Rockets, Height-o-Meters; and Sky Challenger Star Wheels with six interchangeable discs, each disc focusing on a specific observing activity.

These are very busy folks, as you can see. The real clincher for Holt's title-of "The Best ..." evolved while I was on vacation. I visited the Holt Planetarium to see a planetarium show. This is where Halt really shines! There were two shows offered during the day. One of them, "Constellations Tonight," is designed to teach people how to use a star map for the current night sky. The one I went to see was called "Moons of the Solar System". It was offered twice during the center's hours of 10:00-5:00. The planetarium show was $2.00, an extra cost not included with the admission price to the Hall.
Here a small group of adults/children was invited to join a guide on an adventure in science in which individuals from the group were allowed to express their ideas (and most likely their misconceptions) while we all pursued new knowledge and ideas. Moons of the Solar System: we began with the dimming of orange lights to a late afternoon sky. The sun set, the room darkened to show the moon in a southwestern sky with a sky full of stars. Holt's planetarian showed us how to find the North Star, using the Big Dipper. Then he asked a question: "Three days from now," he said, "where will the moon be in the sky at the same time of night, just after sunset?" Each person who wanted to guess was given a red arrow pointer to show where. The guide was in no hurry: all during the show he asked a few pertinent questions at each juncture and accepted all explanations without correction, just gently leading to a "better" explanation. He showed us where the moon would be three days from now.

Surprise! Not only is it in a different place, it's a different shape! "Where would it be three days from there?" he asked. Again, we saw the moon in a different place, with a different shape. We were asked to name the shapes we have seen. He then told us the names of the shapes, and asked, "Why does the moon change?" After a leisurely pause for audience ideas, he told us, "The moon moves around the earth. As the sun shines on the moon, the moon looks different". He then turned on a fairly bright light in the middle of the room and gave each person in the room a 2-inch Styrofoam ball stuck on a 6-inch piece of dowel rod, and we modeled moon phases, using our head as earth. We discovered how the moon changed phases.

After completing this demonstration, we were next shown a copy from a page of Galileo's journal on which he recorded data about the, moons of Jupiter. The drawings were confusing. Next we saw a slide of what Galileo probably saw: Jupiter and its four largest moons. It was the first in a series of 11 slides specially produced for this show. they were shown in a sequence that revealed the position of the four moons over a period of time. Each moon was a different color (for purposes of this demonstration). People in the room were divided into four groups; each group was told to watch one moon as the slide sequence was shown, and report when "their" moon came back to where it started. And so we were not told that moons orbit planets and the closer the moon, the faster it moves; we discovered it!

For the second half of this show, we took a tour of the moons in the solar system. So, in "Moons of the Solar System," we saw lots of pictures of moons, we learned what a moon is, and how it moves. Wow: now that's a planetarium show!

But there's more... In 1979, LHS conducted summer institutes for Planetarium Directors in the area of how to implement such lessons. A decade later, 300 teacher-leaders were trained in these summer institutes to bring the experience of "Participatory Oriented Planetariums for Schools" (POPS) to planetariums all over the world.

The POPS people also came up with a 12-volume set of books designed to help teacher and planetarium educators implement effective participatory programs and classroom activities. The Volume Titles are Planetarium Educator's Workshop Guide, Planetarium Activities for Schools, Resources for Teaching Astronomy and Earth Science, A Manual for Using Portable Planetariums, Constellations Tonight; Red Planet Mars, Moons of the Solar System [that's the one I have described above; the 11-slide sequence comes with it], Colors from Space, Who "Discovered" America, Astronomy of the Americas, How Big is the Universe? and Stonehenge. If you have a planetarium, and don't have these books, Get them! [Planetarium web site: http://lhs.berkeley.edu/planetarium; volume site http://lhs.berkeley.edu.

These unique audience-participatory shows are authored and edited by Cary Sneider, Alan Friedman, and Alan Gould. In my opinion, without these three "hawkers" of "participatory-ness", we converts (yes, I'm one!) wouldn't have polystyrene balls on sticks, sky maps for use in the planetarium for star ID, or any other of the wonderful ideas-spawned by 27 years of educational experimentation at the Holt Planetarium. The Lawrence Hall of Science has been a pioneer in what professional educators call the "discovery," "hands-on or "participatory" technique for learning, specializing in astronomy/space science/mathematics concepts. In 1998, nearly 19,000 people visited LHS's planetariums (including 8500 participants in their Starlab outreach program). However, there is no way to estimate how many people have been influenced by the commitment of Holt's staff to helping people understand the Universe.

In my opinion, the POPS philosophy is not only past history, it is the model for the direction that planetariums should go in the new millennium. That's another basis for the title I've laid on the Holt Planetarium. In the September, 1999 issue of the Planetarian, it seems that others agree. The lead article of that issue, entitled "Reflections on Planetarium Design and Operation", was written by Ian McLennan, a prominent former planetarian and avid planetarium-lover. In ending his 'reflections', Ian writes:" I have come full circle, and am convinced it is overdue for ... planetariums to abandon the recorded show, and go back to the basics. This mean having highly motivated, knowledgeable talented, enthusiastic presenters and communicators connect with live audiences in the planetarium theatres of the future. [We need to re-introduce styles] that can assist us in reaching the public at a very high level of engagement-including fundamental and excellent storytelling."

If I take another vacation out LHS way, you better bet I will go and see what the masters have come up with at "The Best Planetarium in the Whole World!"

Holt Planetarium, Lawrence Hall of Science, UC Berkeley
Holt Planetarium