One of my favorite parts of teaching in the planetarium is getting thank you cards. I keep a collection of favorites pinned up on my wall, just a few of the uncountable amount sent from students after 10 years and over 600 school visits with the ExploraDome. And I can’t bear to get rid of any of them!
A thank you card from a young student. No, we don’t have students doing headstands in the ExploraDome! They lie on the floor, and this is a common way for students to draw that perspective.
The University of Minnesota Bell Museum of Natural History’s ExploraDome debuted 10 years ago this month at the Association of Science and Technology Centers conference in Louisville, Kentucky. At the time, it was run by the Minnesota Planetarium Society (MNPS), which had been through a series of unfortunate events and revoked funding while working toward building a new planetarium to replace the one torn down in 2002. But it turns out that this loss had a silver lining. MNPS went back to the legislature and secured new funding to open a few years later, and in the meantime there was still astronomy to teach to citizens of the Twin Cities and the state of Minnesota. That idea sparked the inception of the ExploraDome. We would not have inspired the over 180,000 students and other learners we’ve seen in these 10 years if we hadn’t lost the original funding.
I have been with the ExploraDome since the beginning. I started as a volunteer, and was hired in spring 2007 to develop and implement the educational aspect of the program. I had spent 6 years in the planetarium field prior to this, as an educator and show producer in a traditional planetarium. Unquestionably my most rewarding experiences there were when I was presenting live school programs. But the change from presenting in a 144 seat theater to one class at a time provided me with an experience I never could have anticipated. We crowd a whole class into an 18’ diameter (on the inside) dome. We call it “indoor camping,” asking the class to lie down on their backs and imagine they are in a wide open field looking up into the sky. But of course, after a brief review of the day and night sky, we launch them into space and tour the universe! Some of them wonder—did we really leave Earth? The ones who ask, I’m sure they know the truth, but they want to believe that for a brief time they were astronauts!
A field trip without the headaches
It’s a different audience in a portable dome, for a variety of reasons. Teachers tell us that they greatly appreciate the opportunity to have the ExploraDome as an enrichment experience right in their own school. We promote this program as a field trip without the headaches, and a teacher agreed, “It was a real treat that we didn't need to get a bus and collect trip fees. That doesn't happen very often.”
We are fortunate to have received sponsorship from over 20 corporate and private foundations for over 350 days in schools in underserved communities, without the capacity to pay for a visit themselves. Over half of the days we have spent in schools are with these scholarships, and teachers are grateful to have this source of funding.
“It was a wonderful experience for our students, especially because many of our students do not get to visit museums or other places to extend learning. Thank you!”
Indoor camping and zooming through the universe in the ExploraDome. Photo credit: Ben Huset
Zoom! From Earth to the Edge of the Universe
The goal of our programming is a mixture of education and inspiration. We designed some of our programs to support Minnesota science standards, because we know that teachers may need curricular justification to invest time and money in an informal education experience. However, teachers have told us that they are not always looking to us to teach the standards. They want us to provide something that sparks students’ interest in science, engineering, or many other topics, and Uniview is perfect for that.
"Frequently I hear a student say, on the way back in, “We are so small.” How satisfying—they get it! If the students leave the dome with just one thought I hope it’s either that, or the fact that we cannot be alone in this universe!"
In our programs we almost always include a zoom out of the Milky Way, through the Tully galaxy set, all the way to the Cosmic Microwave Background. Of course, we don’t leave them there—we travel back to Earth so they can truly understand the sense of scale and our place in the universe. Frequently I hear a student say, on the way back in, “We are so small.” How satisfying—they get it! If the students leave the dome with just one thought I hope it’s either that, or the fact that we cannot be alone in this universe! Often I show the dataset of extrasolar planets, explaining the number we’ve found, the number of stars in the Milky Way, and the number of galaxies in the universe. I then ask—do you think there is life beyond Earth? The answer is always a resounding “yes!”
The intimacy of the dome and small group size allows the presentation to be much less like a lecture, and more like a conversation. With 30 kids in 30-45 minutes, and the flexibility of Uniview, the experience might be tailored not just to the class, but down to the individual student. We sometimes present the same show up to 10 times in one school day, but the variety of students and questions within each makes it a different experience every time.
Now, and into the future.
I’m semi-retired from the ExploraDome outreach. I get the opportunity to take it to schools a few times a year, but I have passed along the regular operations to a fantastic staff that has taken the original model for school programming and carried it along to new heights. Sarah Komperud has been running the dome for the past 4.5 years, and along with the standard astronomy content, she includes inquiry, engineering, and the nature of science in her presentations. In the past couple years our demand has increased so much that it is not sustainable for Sarah to run it alone. We have added capacity with a position filled by some of our former undergraduate students who ran shows in our 15-seat dome (a story for another post!) who are bringing even more innovative programming and educational philosophy into schools.
A school visit in May 2016 to my son Leo’s kindergarten class. It was the day I was eagerly anticipating since before he was born! Photo credit: Parkview Center School
So whatever happened with that planetarium we were trying to build? In 2011, MNPS integrated with the Bell Museum of Natural History, another institution seeking support for a new facility. Together we demonstrated that 1+1 is greater than 2, and have support from the state, University of Minnesota, and private funders to build a new Bell Museum and Planetarium, and we will return a public planetarium to the Twin Cities after a 16-year absence!
I want to thank my two partners in crime over the past 10 years.
Joel Halvorson, always dreaming big, pioneered the ExploraDome as the first portable planetarium bringing Uniview directly to schools. Using domecasting and incorporation of novel topics, he has brought innovative immersive programming to a network of planetariums in Minnesota and the surrounding states, as well as around the world. He pushed the Minnesota Planetarium Society to keep going, and we wouldn’t be where we are without him.
Sarah Komperud’s fresh perspective on ExploraDome presentations and creation of astronomy programs for the Bell Museum encourages me to strive to be a better educator and pushes me to think outside the box for the framework of future programming.