Ana Larson, a senior lecturer in astronomy, operates software inside the UW planetarium, which enables people to explore the night sky on campus. The planetarium is part of the department of astronomy's outreach effort.

Every Friday they gather. They collect at the foot of the astronomy building’s pendulum and wait for an eager volunteer to guide them into the darkness. They are old, young, and middle-aged, but above all else they are enthusiastic.

The audience steps into a round dome, where the seats are designed to look up, not forward. The lights dim, the planetarium’s seven computers hum to life, and on the ceiling, stuff appears.

What is that stuff? And how did it come to be there? 


Cosmic origins

In a city full of artificial lights, it’s rare and almost impossible to see the night sky in its entirety.  Many people may never see all the stars, and what was once a regular sight has now become a privileged occurrence. The UW Planetarium seeks to change that.  

Built in 1994 with the new astronomy building, the planetarium is funded primarily by the Student Technology Fee, which provided $90,000 in 2005 and another $50,000 in 2015 to upgrade computers and fully digitalize the operation. The new system operates on an 8-million megapixel display.  

The planetarium runs and works with the publicly sourced Microsoft software, WorldWide Telescope, which is available for free download on their website. Taking images and data from multiple telescopes and places, it acts as a free, open-source way for anyone to look at outer space, regardless of whether they have a 30-foot domed ceiling or a 15-inch laptop screen.  

The program is run by graduate students on a volunteer-basis and is completely free to the public.  All it takes is the completion of a short online form and you too could be on your way to a Friday star show. 


Education and outreach

At the head of these efforts is Kristen Garofali, a doctoral student studying the evolution of massive binary stars (think Tatooine) through observational astronomy. She is responsible for coordinating shows and training presenters to operate the system, which consists of seven computers and projectors. Traditionally, the running of the planetarium has been handed to astronomy graduate students, who make up a network of individuals with enough experience to mentor both students and presenters.

“It gives people at all different levels a great opportunity to do astronomy outreach and talk about astronomy and science with the public,” Garofali said. “There’s a very low barrier to entry. Anyone who’s really interested can get trained to use the equipment and that’s a pretty unique opportunity. Teaching and answering questions is one of the best ways to learn things.” 

Volunteers come from everywhere around the UW. They’re undergrads, graduate students, and community members. You don’t have to be a part of the astronomy department to present, but you do need to have an interest in space.  

“I wanted to present because i think it’s really fun to share astronomy with the community,” astronomy graduate student Margaret Lazzarini said. “Everyone’s innately excited about it. I mean you obviously can study astronomy in excruciating detail, but you can study it at a superficial level and still feel like you understand and get excited about it.”

Each program is tailored to its group, which makes it different from larger scale shows. Presenters are free to create their own programs, as well as mold them around the desires of a group. If a third grade class was learning about constellations, the whole hour could be dedicated to them. 

Garofali runs quarterly trainings in which volunteers can learn the system and get acquainted with the computers and projectors, which she promises aren’t that difficult to use. Each projector and computer pair is appropriately named after a planet in our solar system.  

Reserved group shows typically run every Friday, but the planetarium is open to the public on the first Friday night of every month. The audience ranges from Girl Scout troops to senior living facilities, high school students, and beyond — emphasis is placed more on the outreach than the age.

Furthering the effort to attract volunteers to the program, professor Ana Larson teaches an astronomy outreach class (ASTRO 270) that targets undergraduates. With the planetarium as a classroom, the students learn weekly presentation skills as well as general astronomy knowledge. In addition to the planetarium, the students also learn to present in the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory, which collaborates with the Seattle Astronomical Society.

“I’ve always liked working with kids, so getting kids excited about science is always an awesome experience,” said Ellis Avallone, an undergraduate taking the class.

With both majors and non-majors present, Larson provides a safe environment for people at all public speaking skill levels to give public presentations. Many have gone on to present for the rest of their time at the UW, taking the skills they learned to give talks at places like the Museum of Flight.

“Educational public outreach is really important,” Larson said. “Teachers are teaching more astronomy — the youngest groups we’ve had were in preschool.”

In fact, astronomy shows are in such high demand, it’s often hard to get into them. The planetarium sometimes has to turn people away at the observatory, and public planetarium talks are now ticketed as reservations have been flooding in, Larson said. 


To infinity, and beyond

In spite of the planetarium’s limited space, the team is continuing its effort to educate K-12 youth. The UW Mobile Planetarium brings star shows directly to the classroom. Similar in style to a bouncy house, Garofali and her team take a large blow up dome powered by a pump and a simple projector to schools across Washington. Their reach is as close as local Seattle science fairs and as far as the annual Astronomy Night in Forks. Many students who can’t afford to pay for a field trip can get the night sky right before their eyes.

In addition, UW also offers college in the high school classes for astronomy. Students can take Astronomy 101 and Astronomy 150 selectively. Avellone cited taking these classes as part of her reasoning for continuing to study the field in college.

For grad students, working with the public helps them to step out of their very specific research box.  

“The coolest part for me as a graduate student is being able to take a step back and remind myself how awe inspiring astronomy is,” Lazzarini said. “It’s kind of cool to take a step back and remember how immense and exciting the field is.” 

Going forward, the program is looking for more volunteers to fuel its popular shows. Each presenter is also a student, which cuts down on the amount of time they can commit. More presenters ensures less people will have to get turned away. If students are interested in volunteering or just seeing the sky, Garofali suggests attending a Friday show or bringing a campus group in for their own.

“Overall our department is really good at emphasizing astronomy outreach education,” Garofali said. “It gives students lots of really hands on education that they might not get in other places.”


Reach reporter Samantha Bushman at science@dailyuw.comTwitter: @sammi_bushman

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