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A Gold Star Planetarium Show Promotes Learning
Who are NASA's Earth and Space Science Explorers?

The middle school students who track weather to study its effect on bursting tree buds. And the scientist studying black holes in distant galaxies. But also the teacher whose class shares Earth science data with students around the world. And the engineer who designs robotic instruments to probe hard-to-reach planets. All of these people are Earth Explorers, Space Science Explorers or both. The Earth Explorers and Space Science Explorers series features NASA explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.

AmyJo Proctor, Ron Proctor and Stacy Palen

The entry created by AmyJo Proctor, Ron Proctor and Stacy Palen for the Hubble Top Stars contest was awarded a "Gold Star." Image Credit: Ott Planetarium

For several decades, NASA's spaceborne telescopes have helped astronomers answer compelling questions about the origin and evolution of the universe. Of all these, the Hubble Space Telescope is probably the best known. It was certainly the only one AmyJo Proctor, the assistant director for the Ott Planetarium at Weber State University in Utah, was familiar with back in 2004.

AmyJo Proctor was attending an American Astronomical Society meeting when she learned about the Chandra X-ray Observatory and saw the first images from the Spitzer Space Telescope. She began dreaming of producing a planetarium show that would explain how NASA's Great Observatories -- Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory -- work together to explore the universe.

Five years later, with the help of Ron Proctor, her husband and the planetarium's production coordinator, and Stacy Palen, a physics professor and the planetarium's director, her dream became a reality. The three-person team created "Expanded View," a planetarium show that seamlessly combines education and entertainment to show how the Great Observatories teach us about the cosmos. People can view a flat-screen version on their computers.

The show earned the Proctors and Palen a "Gold Star" in the NASA-sponsored Top Stars contest. Conducted by the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies in cooperation with the Space Telescope Science Institute, the contest recognized as "Top Stars" those educators documenting exemplary use of Hubble in science, technology, engineering or mathematics education, awarding a Gold Star to the top 10 entries.

The Great Observatories collect and analyze radiation emitted by space phenomena at different wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum. "Expanded View" introduces the spectrum and demonstrates the importance of multi-wavelength observation. The show uses examples from Hubble, Spitzer and Chandra to explain how they capture images and what those images tell us about deep space objects.

A mixed audience of the public walks through the doors of the Ott Planetarium every day, and the Proctors and Palen hope to have an impact on everyone who watches "Expanded View." "We hope that this show will instill a greater desire to learn about the universe as well as an understanding of the importance of these types of observatories," said AmyJo Proctor. "Support from citizens helps keep these and future scientific learning missions possible."

One of the team's most important goals is to engage students in science. To that end, they have developed student projects and a guide for educators in conjunction with the show. The activities tap into students' imaginations to help them learn about a deep space object. Then the students present this knowledge to their peers. "This helps cement things they have learned," AmyJo Proctor said.

Ron Proctor believes it is important to show students that science is amazing yet approachable. "Science is too often presented as this big, complex thing," Proctor said. And what better place is there to encourage students to engage in science in an enjoyable way than a planetarium? "The planetarium is a unique theater," he said. "It surrounds the audience, immerses them in a way that no flat-screen theater can." The dome-shaped screen can make viewers feel as if they are part of the environment and help them see things in a new light.

Stacy Palen clearly remembers being riveted by her first planetarium visit in third-grade. She believes planetariums are ideal for instilling a passion for science. She quoted French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery's words: "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

Planetariums teach longing, immensity and the meaning of endlessness, Palen believes. "In my opinion, the longing must be there before the learning can take root," she said. "Students will go to any lengths to learn the most ridiculously complicated things, but only if they long to know them."

As a young girl interested in science, Palen was motivated by Carl Sagan. "He taught me that women could do science with his stories of famous women astronomers," she said.

The Proctors found themselves drawn by the stars. AmyJo Proctor's inspiration came from her parents, who encouraged her even when some school teachers told her "girls aren’t scientists." She said she always has been curious about the world and often lay in her grandfather's yard gazing at the stars. Meanwhile, Ron Proctor explained that he never had intended to have a science-oriented career. He went to university to become a commercial artist, but an Introduction to Astronomy course changed his mind. After that, "I was hooked," he added.

Related Resources:
› Top Stars   →
› Hubble Space Telescope   →
› Top Stars Winners

Prachi Patel: Institute for Global Environmental Strategies