The advent of the mobile planetarium made it possible for millions of school students in smaller towns to learn more about the solar system and beyond without the necessity of leaving their school buildings.
You can’t really call the portable planetarium an innovative idea for education as many of them were designed and built some twenty years ago. However, these days it is possible to create a traveling planetarium that does not employ expensive fish-eye lens and costs less than $20,000. Even though they are made on a shoestring budget, traveling planetariums manage to impress you so much that you totally forget your skepticism and feel as if you really are in space orbiting Jupiter.
A typical traveling planetarium is an inflatable tent some 10 feet high and 20 across. It is small enough to be set up in a school’s choir room or gym, and spacious enough to sit about 30 children. A large convex mirror is used to reflect images onto the walls of the dome. The planetarium is operated by a laptop computer and special software that offers both students and teachers an incredible level of interactivity.
A team of the University of Washington Astronomy Department students created its own traveling planetarium back in 2012; since then it has been regularly brought to schools to give lectures on various subjects. What’s more, elementary and middle-school students are encouraged to use the planetarium to create their own presentations and give them to their peers.
Some people might say that a traveling planetarium is nothing but an eye candy that provides stunning visuals but fails to accompany them with ‘truly scientific’ information. To refute such a statement Justin Gaily, an undergraduate at the University of Washington asked students to take tests before and after his astronomical show. According to him, most people gave the correct answers in the post-show test, and attitudes towards science and astronomy were in general more favorable.
Creators of the UW Planetarium have written a guide to help those who want to build their own ‘starship of the imagination’. Freely downloadable programs like Microsoft’s Worldwide Telescope help astronomy enthusiasts to economize on software. There are also numerous ready-made presentations on the internet so that you are able to create a new show for a mobile planetarium in just a few days.
In Britain, they use traveling planetariums to put on such shows as The Life of Stars (follows the life of a star from birth to death), Egypt (retells the stories of the Ancient Egyptians about the stars) and Earth, Moon and Sun (demonstrates how these celestial objects interact with each other). There is even a mobile digital planetarium service called Immersive Theatres that visits schools on demand and offers a large catalogue of films and presentations that include more than 135 titles. ‘Students and teachers will be left with vivid and lasting memories to motivate classroom learning’, says Mario Di Maggio, the owner and director of Immersive Theatres. Turn your passion into a business venture and you will never fail: this saying is definitely true when it comes to a mobile planetarium.