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UW graduate students buy portable planetarium

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UW graduate students buy portable planetarium

(From left to right) Nell Byler, Justin Gailey, Phil Rosenfield, and Oliver Fraser sit in their portable planetarium. 

Students in the Seattle area will soon be able to gaze at the night sky from inside their schools with the help of the UW.

A group from the UW astronomy department purchased a portable planetarium that will be used in K-12 schools across Seattle.

The planetarium’s dome, created by the company Go-Dome, is an inflatable room resembling an igloo. At approximately 10 feet high and 20 feet across, the dome can fit approximately 25 people. It is a fully functional planetarium that offers many of the same images as the high-tech planetarium located at the UW.

“We’re hoping to increase science enthusiasm in [students],” said Phil Rosenfield, the principal investigator of this project. “Part of it is to allow students to get an idea of what science is about. We want to make sure that we have people in college coming down and talking to these students. It’s a nice opportunity.”

The UW astronomy department already offers an outreach program in its full-sized planetarium Fridays, allowing students from K-12 schools to watch shows put on by graduate students. However, Rosenfield said there is a surprisingly low number of students coming from the Seattle area.

“We made a map of where people come from to see our shows, and we found that none of the places are Seattle public high schools, which are very close,” Rosenfield said. “So we figured maybe we could write a grant to build something for us to be able to bring it to them.”

The project goes beyond presenting the planetarium to students: The group plans to give high-school students a chance to use the dome themselves. The astronomy department launched a seminar several days ago to train approximately a dozen people to go to high schools and teach the students how to use the software.

“What we’re thinking is to do something much more interactive, where the students at the high school will actually get to use the dome to present their projects,” said Oliver Fraser, UW astronomy lecturer. “We’re kind of excited about that. The end goal is to make sure that some of the people that are thinking, ‘Maybe I like science, maybe I don’t.’ We give them an opportunity to really try it out.”

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Generally, the domes are purchased with the projector, hardware, and software together. However, Rosenfield said the team was able to lower the cost by assembling the planetarium on its own in a cost-effective way that did not compromise quality.

“We did it for probably about half the cost that’s been done before, and we’re also doing it with different components,” Rosenfield said. “What we’re doing is using a laptop, and projector, a couple of mirrors and that’s it. So we did it for about $18,000.”

The team has also made an effort to incorporate UW undergraduate students into the project. Rosenfield said the team plans to train undergraduates to go out to high schools and teach astronomy.

Gary Young, president of Go-Dome, said the planetarium experience is unique in its engagement of the audience.

“It’s not just a cool thing that you inflate and it’s fun to go inside, but it’s an immersive environment,” Young said. “When you go inside, you become totally immersed in whatever it is that you’re watching.”

The planetarium has already been used for a handful of presentations, and the response has been positive.

“People really like it; they’ve got great questions. … You get some gasps because people have never really seen the night sky like that before,” Rosenfield said.

Reach reporter Ola Wietecha at Twitter: @OWietecha

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