Local planetariums teach and entertain

In the 1960s and ’70s, a high school planetarium-building boom took place in the United States.

Local and national high school planetariums were, for the most part, built in that time period, Hollidaysburg biology, chemistry and astronomy teacher Rick Imler said in an email.

During that time, high schools received support from the National Defense Education Act, which “provided funds for science education in response to the perceived superiority of the Soviet space program,” he said. “The present status we enjoy in science and technology can be traced back to this series of historical events.”

Today, other countries have since forged ahead.

“We are now facing a similar situation in which there is an erosion of our science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) standing relative to countries such as China and India. We need another NDEA-like initiative to refocus national goals that will allow our country to remain competitive in an increasingly science/ technology fueled global economy.”

Despite the needed reboot, local planetariums still offer an education in astronomy to area students and to the community.

What people can learn from stars and astronomy includes “an understanding of our origins,” through the elements carbon, iron, uranium, forged in stars, that is found on Earth, and insight into the sun’s history and its fate, Imler said.

“Astronomy is a science that students can be directly involved in,” he said, by observing planets, comets and stars.

Hollidaysburg school’s planetarium, which was built in the late ’60s and so takes a “fairly high-degree of maintenance,” is currently under repair, Imler said. Although it is used primarily for student education, it does offer shows for community groups.

Altoona astronomy teacher James Krug runs the high school astronomy club and the elementary and public sky shows at the high school’s Neil Armstrong Planetarium.

The Hollidaysburg Area High School doesn’t have an astronomy club, but it does have a STEM Club.

“I use the planetarium almost every day in my astronomy class,” Krug said. “By the time students get done with either the semester astronomy course or the full-year academic course, they’ll know anywhere from probably 40 to 60 constellations, 50 to 70 stars and other objects in the sky.”

Altoona’s student astronomy club is popular, but does face a challenge, he said.

“It’s actually a pretty big challenge, because a lot of people don’t realize it, but our part of Pennsylvania actually has less clear nights for stargazing than any place in the country, even the Pacific Northwest.

“So one of the problems you run into with the club is you almost can’t have an event that is 100 percent dependent on clear sky, and so you sort of have to have events that are dual purpose.”

Krug takes students to Fort Roberdeau in Sinking Valley for camping and a rocket launch.

They also visit neighboring colleges to learn what they offer in astronomy.

Seniors Patrick McClure, 17, and Kadee Stephens, 18, are members of the astronomy club.

Patrick, who plans to study biology at St. Francis University, Loretto, took a half-year astronomy class.

Kadee, who will attend Moore College of Art & Design, Philadelphia, took academic astronomy.

In class, Patrick said he was surprised to find out how astronomy is related to everyday life. Kadee was surprised to learn about “all of the space missions. Some of them I didn’t actually know about, and I thought it was really cool.”

Kadee’s class recently started exploring extra-terrestrial life and watched a video of a trip Krug took to Area 51, she said.

Krug incorporates some of the public sky shows into his classroom curriculum, he said.

This year, the planetarium is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Since February, the planetarium, which seats 50, has offered three sky shows at 6, 7 and 8 p.m. entitled “Oasis in Space,” “Origins of Life,” and “Mars Quest.”

The next show, “Hubble Vision 2,” will take place Friday. The final show is “Dinosaur Passage to Pangea” on May 24.

“We do traditional slide-based shows that we used to show on slide projectors, but we’ve modified for our digital system, which was installed in 2006,” Krug said. “And we also have newer full-domed digital sky shows, which are a really immersive experience for the audience. They are non-stop animation on the entire dome, and we’ve been trying our best to grow our listing of shows that we can provide in that manner.”

The shows are popular with the general public, he said.

“I think our full-dome digital shows are definitely a little bit more popular, but some of our slide-based shows are still very, very popular, too. For example, we still show a Christmas slide show called ‘Season of Light’ that’s probably one of our most popular sky shows,” he said. “I try right now with the amount of shows we have to just offer them on a three-year cycle. I try to rotate them enough that we aren’t showing the same things every single year with the exception of the Christmas sky show. But they’ve been very popular. The majority of our 40th anniversary shows that we have shown have sold out and usually sold out fairly quickly.”

Sky shows have changed over the years, Krug said.

“The sky shows you used to get for planetariums were all strictly astronomy based, and now the subject matter is definitely expanding,” he said. “Like, ‘Dinosaur Passage to Pangea’ is definitely our first earth science-based show. But we also have some history shows like ‘Origins of Life,” and even some shows touch on biology like ‘Origins of Life’ does, and then we have a show called ‘Natural Selection,’ which is about Charles Darwin and it’s probably one of the best shows that we have. … It’s more of a biology-based show, so I’d say our subject matter is really expanding.”

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.