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New Planetarium Planned for The Arboretum at Penn State

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2 June 2014

New, technologically advanced digital visions of the night sky on campus? With the completion of a new planetarium as part of The Arboretum at Penn State’s Education Center expansion, this fantasy could become a reality.

The current 30-seat planetarium in Davey Laboratory, built in the 1980s, is a popular facility that balances many varied uses. The facility, being the closest planetarium to many areas of the state, attracts numerous local and not-so-local school and scouting groups, and also receives requests to partner with community organizations.

Balancing educational, community, and elementary school trip usage at the small planetarium is tough, and doesn’t factor in the planetarium’s original purpose: an education and research facility for Penn State students, researchers, and faculty. The planetarium serves the students, faculty, and researchers in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and provides planetarium shows for very popular science general education astronomy courses with many hundreds of students each semester.

This leaves demand for shows at the planetarium high, and resources in the current facility struggling to meet the demand. The small seating capacity and central campus location make access to planetarium shows challenging. Instead of being able to seat an entire group for a planetarium show at once, the planetarium staff may have to run multiple shows to accommodate all members of a group. And then there’s the issue of a bus dropping off a class of elementary-school children near the entrance to Davey Laboratory—in the center of campus on the HUB mall, where traffic flow is limited.

PlanetariumKnowing the current facility’s limitations, Larry Ramsey, then head of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, came up with the concept of the new planetarium at the Arboretum in 2007 after a conversation with members of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics’s Board of Visitors. Ramsey took the idea to Kim Steiner, director of the Arboretum, and Deb Howard, director of facilities resources and planning for the University. Steiner and Howard were interested in the idea, and the trio worked together on a formal program statement, which enabled architectural studies of the project to begin.
The new planetarium at the Arboretum would be built on the grounds of the proposed Education Center, which is still awaiting funding. The new planetarium would be able to seat 125-150 people, more than four times as many as the current planetarium’s capacity. And the Arboretum’s location makes loading and unloading buses of students easier than the current location on the HUB mall.

The new facility would provide increased technology, an upgrade that is long overdue, said Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics Senior Lecturer Christopher Palma, who helps to manage the planetarium. “Many other universities with planetaria (Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Colorado) have either already upgraded or are in the process of doing so.”
According to Ramsey, the new planetarium plans include a fully modern and upgradable full-dome 2D and 3D digital projection system, making the planetarium a capable digital theater that several departments on campus could use for innovative educational and research activities.

Increased technology in the upgraded facility will provide more up-to-date career preparation for the department’s astronomy majors interested in science education. Many of the students who work at the campus planetarium go on to careers managing other planetarium or science education facilities as a result of the valuable hands-on experience they receive before they graduate.

Modern, upgraded planetarium facilities are capable of much more than just astronomy-based programming. The new digital projection technology makes it possible to feature shows and projections on subjects ranging from meteorology, life sciences, and geosciences, to art, history, and music, while also providing hands-on career preparation for other disciplines, like education and film majors.

Another possibility is a new stream of revenue. While the planetarium does not charge admission for planetarium shows (and has no plans to change that), they could rent the new space for events. And digital projection allows for the creation of new shows featuring Penn State astronomy research that could be licensed to other institutions, another way to generate revenue.

The proposed Education Center at the Arboretum, of which the planetarium would be part, brings a host of opportunities for learning to the Arboretum.

“When the Education Center is completed at the Arboretum, it will make that part of campus not only a gateway to the rest of the University, but it will also be a destination learning center for K-12 classes and the community at large,” said Palma.

The new planetarium would continue a long history of having a planetarium on campus. Palma and his colleagues found evidence of a planetarium predating the current facility: a 1940s planetarium in Osmond Laboratory started by Henry Yeagley, a former professor of physics and astronomy.

Ramsey, Palma, and their colleagues in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics are eager to continue this tradition at the Arboretum’s Education Center.

“We have had a long tradition of welcoming the community to our campus for educational events, and look forward to being able to expand our capacity for these sorts of programs in collaboration with the Arboretum,” said Palma.