Gainesville Daily Register

September 23, 2011

Planetarium provides landscape for learning

By DELANIA TRIGG, Assistant Editor
Gainesville Daily Register

Gainesville — Forget movies and video games. For many local students, a visit to North Central Texas College’s John H. Parker Planetarium has the power to inspire.

Close to 2,000 children and adults viewed shows at the planetarium last year, NCTC science grant coordinator Sara Flusche said.

The center with its domed ceiling, comfortable communal seating and surround-sound audio never fails to impress guests, especially younger ones, Flusche said.

“Their little heads don’t even pop up over the seats,” she said. “But they’re just awestruck. For them, the world is the next day. They’re amazed by a trip to a Super Walmart or a big toy store...When you get to see them with their eyes wide open, it’s just a wonderful thing to ignite their love for learning.”

 NCTC’s planetarium — housed in the college’s 800 building — was built in the early 1970s to support the college’s astronomy classes. A renovation of the facility was completed in 2010.

“The planetarium was started in the early 70s,” Flusche said. “John H. Parker was president of the college at the time and he had this vision of creating a planetarium for our students as well as the community.”

Parker supervised the planetarium’s offerings for several years. In 1979, he handed the center’s operation over to Dr. Ron Bost — current chairman of the NCTC science department.

Flusche took over three years ago.

Thousands of school kids and other groups viewed stars and galaxies at the facility over the years, but by 2009, Flusche said she realized the center was nearing the end of its lifespan. Technological limitations curbed the number of shows she could offer and acquiring replacement parts for some of the projection equipment was difficult.

“Prior to the renovation we had (just) three shows because of unreliable equipment,” Flusche said. “ The speakers would go out and we were running with ten slide projectors. They were not automatic projectors. We had to push the buttons at a cue. Our materials are outdated materials.”

Flusche began researching other facilities and gathering ideas for saving the Parker Planetarium.

“I visited several of the surrounding digital planetariums and found out what we could do,” she said. “ We brought in the director of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History and she said, ‘You cannot get rid of this. People don’t have domes like this already in place and to (rebuild the facility) would be astronomical in terms of cost.’ So we looked into what it would cost for carpet and new seating and of course, projection.”

The $274,000 renovation replaced slide projectors and cassette tapes with a two-computer Spitz system featuring dual projectors which cast seamless views of the universe onto the domed ceiling. Up to 60 visitors can view each show.

Besides being a jewel in NCTC’s crown, the planetarium has multiple practical uses, Flusche noted.

“First and foremost our mission is to educate the students,” Flusche said. “But that education may not have to be a Monday-Wednesday class. It can be coming out for one of our continuing education classes or a Saturday class or even coming to the planetarium for a 20-minute show and learning about a new constellation or a distant land that we never thought of as being somewhere to take a field trip.”

The facility has four preselected shows. Offerings for young students usually have a storyline.

“Enchanted Reef,” for instance is for preschool to second grade students and features an adventure on Kaluoka’hina’s reef. Older students can view “Oasis in Space” — a solar system search for liquid water.

From her computer, Flusche can also take planetarium guests on trips to distant stars and planets such as Jupiter and Neptune.

Ever the teacher, Flusche said she talks to students and asks questions during her presentations.

“We talk about the different gases and rocks that are on the planet that give them their color,” she said. “We can toggle around and look at the day and night cycle. We talk about light years and how in science and astronomy we talk about things being ‘light years’ away...”

Field trips to the planetarium also make sense economically, she pointed out.

“With budget crunches many of the schools in the surrounding areas do not have the funds to go on huge, long trips,” she said. “You can come here to NCTC and watch a free educational show. There’s a lot of educational content that students can grab from here.”

Teachers and civic groups can also book the facility.

“Teachers can request specific shows and classes and community organizations are invited to contact me and set up those dates,” she said.

Flusche said she doesn’t accept reservations for family events such as birthday parties.

“I just think that would distract from the educational aspects of the experience,” she said. Four or five Christmas shows are also planned for the 2011 holiday season.

Flusche said she loves working the planetarium venue and being able to show students the universe.

“Kids can take a field trip to the moon while sitting in comfortable seating,” she said. “Where else can you do something like that?”

For information on upcoming planetarium shows or to schedule a visit for a school or organization call Flusche at 668-4252.