Tonight the doors will open to northern Arizona’s first and only planetarium. It’s on the campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott and the creators hope it will inspire young people to embrace science and engineering careers. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny got a sneak preview.
Inside the round building, rows of chairs tip back to look skyward. The ceiling is blank and empty at first. Then the lights go down, the music comes up …. and the stars come out.
A recording plays of the voice of Eric Edelman, director of the Jim and Linda Lee Planetarium. "We can apply what we see and discover here to our actual night sky," he proclaims. "....this view, this pattern of stars, this band of the Milky Way, this is what we, Earthlings, see, and this is how we see it, looking up."
Edelman was not enthralled by math and science as a child. But that changed in college, when he picked up A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. "I was amazed that there were so many things out there in the universe that were so incredible, so far away from the common human experience, in terms of distance, size, temperature, imagination—what’s out there and what we’re learning about!" he says.
That’s when he decided to work in science education. He writes the dialogue for the new planetarium’s shows and computer code for the images of stars and planets. He wants it to be a tool to break down the mental and emotional barriers people, especially kids, have with the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math.
Edelman says, "I think part of me, when I do these shows, is speaking to myself as a kid: and saying this is something you can love, and this is something you can enjoy, and this is something that you take with you."
For visitors, it’s a chance to learn the constellations and hear the latest discoveries about the solar system. They can even experience the night sky free of clouds or light pollution. Andy Fraher, director of STEM Outreach at Embry-Riddle, adds, "We can talk about chemistry, and biology, and earth science, and oceanography if we wanted to, marine biology. We can do shows with those topics in there. So we can have a big impact on local education."
Fraher wants to connect with teachers at Arizona’s rural schools and give them the resources to talk about science in an inspirational way. The planetarium can zoom in on Mars or a distant galaxy, but it also dive into the intricate workings of the human body or the periodic table.
"The greatest feeling I get is when we bring a classroom of kids in, and we’re walking around showing them things, and you have a second grader say, 'This is the best place ever!'" Fraher says. "That’s when you really feel good about doing this job."
The planetarium opens tonight with its first show, “The Prescott Winter Night Sky.” February’s theme is “Romance Among the Stars.”