OGDEN, Utah – Weber State University’s Ott Planetarium has received a $1 million appropriation from the United States Congress to expand educational opportunities for students throughout the region.
The money was earmarked to fund WSU’s Planetarium Learning and New Education Technology (PLANET) project, an effort to expand interest and understanding of science among children in Utah and around the country.
A portion of the funding will be used to purchase new computer equipment that will significantly reduce the time it takes to produce new educational shows. The planetarium has recently begun translating star shows into Spanish to reach out to Utah’s growing Spanish-speaking population. The facility’s current educational programs are aimed at third- and sixth-grade audiences; the federal money will allow the planetarium staff to create shows aimed at additional grade levels in Utah and other states.
According to Chris Millard, director WSU’s Office of Sponsored Projects, the congressional appropriation is the largest of its kind in school history.
“We are very grateful to Rep. Rob Bishop and the entire Utah congressional delegation for their support in making our vision a reality,” said Dale Ostlie, dean of the College of Science at WSU. “This project will help our college build on its strong history of science education outreach to the community and create new opportunities to engage students of all backgrounds.”
The planetarium was built in 1969, primarily from privately donated funds from the Ott family. Over the years, the Ott family has continued to be strong supporters of WSU’s facility. Despite its relatively small seating capacity of 60, the facility serves hundreds of college students each semester and is used extensively to educate local schoolchildren, Boy and Girl Scouts and other groups.
In a typical year WSU’s Department of Physics offers 16 sections of Introduction to Astronomy, educating nearly 1,000 students. Approximately 8,400 people visited the Ott Planetarium or participated in the associated public star parties sponsored by the planetarium during the 2002-2003 academic year.
The small, cozy environment of the facility lends itself to adapting shows to serve the needs of K-12 school groups. These groups often request shows that specifically address a component of the core science curriculum, and WSU’s planetarium can create customized shows that better explain specific ideas and concepts. Most programs include a 15-minute pre-packaged show and then have 10-15 minutes of live question and answer, often with a hands-on activity.
“Astronomy is often called a gateway science,” Ott Planetarium director Stacy Palen said. “It’s generally accessible to students in all areas of study and has developed a reputation for being interesting and fun. That initial excitement can lead students to pursue more in-depth study of astronomy, physics and other sciences.”
A recently installed Konica-Minolta Mediaglobe digital projector and related technology also allows for other science disciplines to use the planetarium to share and explain concepts. Palen is working with colleagues in the chemistry and geology departments to develop presentations from those fields.
Palen said the Ott Planetarium and the Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City are among the first facilities in the nation to have full-dome digital projectors, creating an opportunity for Utah to become a pioneer in developing ways to use the technology to enhance education. WSU’s facility has already begun to realize that new role, having recently provided visuals and music for a show to a planetarium in New Orleans.
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