Bringing the constellations to North Carolina

As Caelen Taylor watched the sunset and the night sky rise over the horizon, the light cast by the moon and stars revealed her awe-struck face.

It’s not that she had never seen stars before, but at 9 a.m. — and while sitting on the hardwood floor of an auxiliary gym — you don’t expect to see the Little Dipper shining.

“I’ve always wondered what it’s like shooting through space and what the stars look like because I’ve never seen all those constellations before,” said Caelen, a third-grader at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte. “They were really cool.”

Despite being more than two hours from Chapel Hill, Caelen and her classmates experienced the stars thanks to the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center’s inflatable Mobile Planetarium.

“The Mobile Planetarium is an extension of the Morehead Planetarium,” said Nick Eakes, the Mobile Planetarium coordinator. “It’s basically a big inflatable dome that’s about 30 feet across, 12 feet high and it can blow up inside a school’s gym or auditorium to be able to give students the experience of looking at the nighttime sky in their own setting.”

Founded in 2010, the Mobile Planetarium — which can be packed into a minivan— brings Morehead’s education out of the planetarium dome and into schools across North Carolina, particularly low-income schools.

Each year, the program visits nearly 100 schools, interacting with upward of 15,000 students with the goal of providing a new experience to enrich classroom learning.

“We use a lot of informational texts and we use a lot of textbooks in the class, but this program is really a fun way to explore all the themes that we cover in the science lesson,” said Laura Lungu, a third-grade teacher at Waddell.

For many schools throughout the state, the Mobile Planetarium is the only way to provide students with the visual experience.

“Most students, even if they’re learning about the solar system in the classroom, don’t have access to something like a planetarium,” Eakes said. “This program’s goal is to be able to go to counties and go to places that don’t have the funds or don’t have access to something like a planetarium because backing up that book knowledge that you get in a classroom with a real visual and feeding that wonder and excitement is important for them to retain it.”

The Mobile Planetarium tailors its shows to the students and taps into the educational curriculum with prerecorded and live shows that cover topics ranging from the solar system and space travel to the Earth’s climate and black holes.

“I think students are naturally curious and once they get inside and settle into the planetarium setting, they’re full of questions,” Eakes said. “It’s an unconventional way to experience multimedia and an unconventional way to see the night sky even in the middle of the day.”

But it’s not just classroom learning – or even an interest in space – that Eakes wants the program to support. He hopes the Mobile Planetarium inspires a new generation of scientists.

“A lot of kids might think because of how they look or where they come from that science isn’t for them and they cannot be a scientist, but we want to fight that,” he said. “We want to give underserved and underrepresented people the opportunity to know that science is for them. It’s not just a guy in a lab coat mixing potions together. Science is an explanation for the world around you.

“That’s what gets me excited about doing this work  — inspiring them.”

Story and video by Brandon Bieltz, University Communications
Published February 14, 2017

 

Thursday, March 9, 2017