The Star Talk Effect

Back when I worked at the planetarium (before I went back to grad school), I used to dread the arrival of spring. Not the nice weather or the flowers. But, at the planetarium, spring meant increasing numbers of field trips. Now, the attendance numbers jumping up was good news. We wanted to see that. But, late in the spring, just when we got more attendance, our student helpers and lecturers were smack in the middle of studying for finals and/or getting ready for graduation. So they weren’t available to do all the star talks I’d trained them to do.

So, what that meant was the lecturing duties would be divvied up amongst a smaller pool of lecturers, or often enough, it was my sole duty to do them. Some days that’s all I did—give lectures to the school groups who came in for star tours and planetarium shows.

Don’t get me wrong—a startalk in the planetarium can be a thing of great beauty and a whole lot of fun to do for a lecturer blessed with a good sense of humor and receptive audiences. Two in a row is interesting. Three in a row is starting to take a toll. Doing six or seven in one day is a marathon. That’s six or seven HOURS of nonstop talking, answering questions, shepherding the students in and out, taking 10 minutes to gulp down lunch, and hopefully running out for a potty break during a pre-recorded show. So, I’d pace myself, and try to make each show as interesting as possible, but by the end of the day, I was definitely not on top of my game. Back when I taught in the classroom (briefly, early in my career) it was the same way. You spend the day in the classroom, with 20 or 30 kids, tending to every need, including the educational, and by the end of the day it was Miller time!

Still, the kids don’t know a planetarium lecturer is tired or talked out or badly need a bathroom break or a cup of coffee. They’re so taken by the whole environment of the planetarium and its cool shape and the equipment and the differentness of it all that they don’t notice the lecturer’s bedragglment late in the day. Which is a good thing. The magic of the dome somehow hides all that.

I was thinking about those days a couple of weeks ago when I was making arrangements to record a couple of narrators for a new set of shows that Mark and I have just released. They’re basically pre-recorded star talks for use in fulldome video planetarium systems. I was explaining the concept to one of the narrators, and I told her about my days in the planetarium and just how draining it could be, even though I was totally turned on about teaching under the dome. The memory of that theater experience was part of the impetus for these shows, in a way. Another was a request from a planetarium colleague who had NO staff to help give shows, and he needed a product to help him meet the demand for star shows. So, we created our stargazing show project to provide totally consistent shows that fulldomers can use, regardless of how well-staffed or prepared they are.

I wish I’d had them back in my own halcyon days of lecturing. I could have used them as stand-alones, or coupled them with Q&A sessions, which were some of my favorite times. A Q&A let me sort of “peek” inside the visitors’ heads to see what their understanding of astronomy was. They never let me down and a lot of times I got into some really cool conversations with attendees.

Which reminds me of a great star talk I heard at a star party in Ontario one time. It was really late in the evening and a group of us were sitting around one guy’s telescope talking about our first visits to planetariums. One of the guys gave a great imitation of a startalk presenter as if he was Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. The puns were awful, and we went away with our bellies aching from laughing so hard. But,for me, it was interesting to see that somebody got something out of the star talk, and remembered enough of it to do a credible imitation a few years later. That’s the beauty of any star talk—if it touches a person and makes them want to go outside and look up, then the effect is good, no matter how tired the lecturer might be.

No Planetarium Left Behind?

One of the listserv mailing lists I read frequently is populated by planetarium folk. As you can imagine, with planetariums being spread across the world and a variety of projector and institution types, the conversations could be pretty widespread in their outreach.

Well, maybe. Lately the discussion has turned to several topics that keep getting revisited:

  • Pluto is/is not a planet (and why that’s good, bad, ugly, or otherwise)
  • Global warming (why it exists/what to do about it)
  • How No Child Left Behind affects planetarium facilities

This last one is downright scary, although the other two topics are good for generating lots of sound and fury. No Child Left Behind is a confusing maze of legislation that is supposed to generate (as far as I can tell) a better education in U.S. schools. I don’t know how much good it has done because all we seem to read (and talk) about is how it has left many schools with unfunded mandates and generally fuzzy expectations about what it means to test students for what they’ve learned. In many cases, the law seems to get cited when schools want to reduce unnecessary funding and focus on “the basics.”

Okay, you say, that sounds fair, right? Well, maybe. Some listserv participants say that schools are reducing school field trips to the planetarium. This is likely a cost-cutting move to save on fuel prices and cost of bus trips, etc. It is unfortunate, but easily understandable if the district is really strapped for cash. And fuel prices are high all over. But, I suspect that the “focus on basics” argument is thrown in to satisfy some political or otherwise non-educational need.

A planetarium visit is actually quite an educational activity. The students get to learn about astronomy in an environment conducive to it. Since the early 1960s, students have been going to planetariums to learn about astronomy and it seems to have worked. And, astronomy is a science that is a gateway to other sciences; it encompasses people in such varied disciplines as physics, math, computing, biology, chemistry, geology/geophysics, and life sciences. In addition, it has spurred many people to go into careers in science writing, policy, and education.

So, if there’s some educational reason why suddenly the planetarium is NOT working as an educational venue, I’d like to see it (and the documented evidence). Because otherwise, what we’re really doing by cutting back on trips to the planetarium, zoo, etc. is cutting back on kids’ educations in the name of something other than education.

Yes, saving fuel is important. But, there are alternative fuels and methods of transportation. And alternative planetariums that actually travel TO the schools (or reside therein). Several companies make and sell them (you can see lists of planetarium system suppliers here and here) for more details).

Why so adamant about planetariums? After more than 20 years working with and in them, creating more than two dozen shows for such facilities, I’ve seen first-hand evidence that they work quite well as a learning experience. And, anecdotally, when I talk to scientists at meetings, if I ask them how they got interested in astronomy, a visit to the planetarium is often mentioned as something that spurred them on to study the subject.

I suspect that if planetariums continue to get cut out of the curriculum (whether or not “No Child Left Behind” is cited as a reason, we’ll be cutting off our educational noses to spite our faces. And at least in the U.S., we can’t really afford to continue dumbing down our kids for political reasons. Particularly in science, where we need more expertise than ever before, not less.