The leaves are falling and the temperature is dropping. It’s the season for cocooning. But before you resign yourself to a winter of cabin fever, consider an alternative: Traveling all around our planet — or off of it.
On Saturday, the Columbia Public Schools planetarium is hosting “Soaring into STEM,” a day-long science exhibition. The activities are geared for all ages and free to the public (though a $5 donation is appreciated).The program will feature observations of the sun, videos about the Earth’s surface and lessons about earthquakes and volcanoes.
Additionally, on Monday, members of the Central Missouri Astronomical Association will be hosting an event at the planetarium for high school and middle school students to watch the planet Mercury cross the sun.
The guide to these terrestrial and extraterrestrial journeys is Meaghann Stoelting, the new manager of CPS’s planetarium in Rock Bridge High School. It’s a job that brings together two of the 25-year-old’s passions.
“When I was growing up in elementary school and middle school and high school, I knew I wanted to do some sort of science,” Stoelting said.
At Alfred University, a college she chose because it had one of the largest university-owned observatories in the U.S., she found her love of astronomy. But she also discovered a love for something else. To take a break from the rigors of her scientific studies, she worked as a stage manager at the campus theater and on the backstage tech crew.
She thinks both her academics and her college hobby guided her to her current position.
“Why planetariums? Because it is a weird theater, but it’s also astronomy,” Stoelting said. “It’s just perfectly aligned.”
Saturday’s show represents the beginning of Stoelting’s plan for the planetarium: opening its doors to more than just students.
“I want it to be more of a community space,” she said. “I want to get more public shows.”
That vision is one of the reasons CPS officials hired Stoelting.
“Meaghann is passionate about connecting students to astronomy and getting kids engaged in all types of sciences,” said Mike Szydlowski, K-12 science coordinator at CPS.
Stoelting, who started her job April 1, is a member of a very exclusive club. She sent out just a handful of applications when she was looking for a job last year. That’s because jobs in her field are rare and don’t come open often.
“All the people who are currently working in planetariums are the same guys that started working when they were built back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when almost all the planetariums in the U.S. was built,” she said.
CPS’ planetarium opened in 1974 and has hosted more than 200,000 schoolchildren from across mid-Missouri.
“Bob Shaw was our superintendent when the planetarium came to fruition,” Superintendent Peter Stiepleman said in an email. “His desire to introduce our children to the cosmos has fueled our district’s decision to create the state’s best science education program.”
Stoelting said she realized something important about her future when she was studying for her master’s degree at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
“I knew going into that, I wanted to do science communication, more than the research side,” Stoelting said. “I don’t think the research is for me.”
She knew she liked sharing her knowledge of astronomy with people more than being in a lab. “It was just way more fun teaching students and not using it for research purposes,” Stoetling said.
She is currently working with the City of Columbia’s Sustainability Office and MU Speaker’s Bureau to do a lecture and demonstration series at the planetarium for families.
While she’s excited about planning new things for students and the community, Stoelting says her favorite part of her job still involves science and theater.
“My job is to teach people about astronomy in a really unique way. And that’s just really fun,” she said. “So if one person comes in there and learns one new thing, and they remember it, then my job is done. Because that’s what I was hired to do.”
Supervising editor is Kathy Kiely.