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Columbia Public Schools Planetarium reopens with new, IMAX-style video system

Wednesday, April 4, 2012 | 8:39 p.m. CDT; updated 11:00 a.m. CDT, Thursday, April 5, 2012
Melanie Knocke, a former astronomy education professional, coordinates the Columbia Public Schools Planetarium sound boards and presentations Wednesday.

COLUMBIA — Under the dome of the planetarium at Rock Bridge High School, an asteroid hurtles toward Earth.

As it rips through the air, a roar fills the room. Visitors see the cratered surface — every nook and cranny — as the asteroid gets closer, threatening to crash through the ceiling.

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It gets screams almost every time.

Thrills are the new normal at the Columbia Public Schools Planetarium, which reopened this week with a new digital system that uses IMAX-style displays. The planetarium had closed in September after its nearly 40-year-old equipment failed.

During an appeal for funding, a family donated $50,000 for the new system when Principal Mark Maus gave them a tour and told them that no elementary school classes were able to visit this year.

"I'm afraid without that, the planetarium would have died," Maus said. The facility is the only planetarium in mid-Missouri.

The building's 40-foot dome serves as a virtual universe. Rather than displaying a view of the night sky through a telescope, it simulates the stars through a projector in the center of the room.

Until the recent equipment upgrade, the planetarium's educational shows depended on decades-old slide projectors. Starting this week, video projections will be 360 degrees, using the entire dome to immerse viewers in the world created overhead. 

The planetarium is now booked until the end of the school year with 6,800 elementary school students who will learn about more than just astronomy. They will get to swim with sharks, ride a volcanic lava flow and, of course, see every constellation in the night sky.

With any luck, the shows they see will pique an interest in science and technology that stays with them the rest of their lives, said Mike Szydlowski, coordinator of the science curriculum for the school district.

Most scientists say they became interested in the subject in elementary school, often through classes, Szydlowski said, citing a 2010 study called "Eyeballs in the Fridge."

The study's name comes from a participant who said she started to love science after she brought home cow eyeballs for a third-grade science project. (Her mother, who discovered the eyeballs in the family's refrigerator, was less thrilled.)

The planetarium aims to get kids excited about science early on. 

"We're trying to hook 'em and keep that hook through high school," Szydlowski said.

The school district keeps up with graduates whose scientific careers started with an early visit to the planetarium — including Caitlin Casey, who received a doctorate in astronomy from the University of Cambridge.

Casey, a Rock Bridge graduate, has helped the planetarium design its website while working on an astronomy grant at the University of Hawaii, Szydlowski said.

The school district is still raising money for improvements to the planetarium, including updates to projectors and the control board.

"Our board that we run everything with is the original board (from 1974)," Maus said. "That's older than I am."

A long-term fundraising goal is to raise $850,000 to replace the star ball in the center of the room, which broke early in the school year and was repaired using this year's anonymous donation.

That donation also vastly improved the delivery of educational programs. In a demonstration Wednesday of the old projection system, slides clunked and shuffled as still images of animals appeared and disappeared in one spot on the dome.

"Our typical telephones do more than this," Szydlowski said.

By contrast, the new system is so realistic it made one younger child cry earlier this week, Szydlowski said.

In one video, a shark circles the dome, humming hungrily as it searches for prey. Right as it seems to be swimming away, it comes back and takes a big bite, and a web of cracked glass appears where it attacked.

The planetarium staff like to mist the back of the room with water at that moment, creating even more of a scare, Szydlowski said.

In the fall, the planetarium will add a biology show for third-graders and programming for grades 6 through 12, including instruction on evolution and anatomy.

The planetarium also plans to start opening shows to the public, starting with an event on April 28, National Astronomy Day.

Until then, students from kindergarten through fifth grade continue to filter through the planetarium. They look up at Orion's Belt and the Big Dipper on a projection of the sky that is changed to match what the sky will look like that night, down to the phase of the moon.

Melanie Knocke gives tours of the stars to each visiting class, showing children how to find planets and constellations in the sky when they go home.

Szydlowski said that after his first-grade daughter heard the tour, she looked at the night sky and said it was just like what she'd seen in the planetarium. She surprised her father by talking to him about how Orion got stuck in the sky chasing the Seven Sisters.

Knocke said the new science programs seem to be making an impression on the hundreds of students who have seen them this week.

"Lots of screams, lots of 'Wow,' lots of talking about it afterward," she said.


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