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Planetarium attracts stargazers beyond UCLA

By Adrienne Law

May 27, 2008 9:00 p.m.

A visitor of the UCLA Planetarium can see how the South Pole’s night sky looked a decade ago and even travel further back in time to observe the stars that the Egyptian pharaohs viewed.

Educating UCLA and surrounding communities has been a great service the planetarium has offered, UCLA astronomers said.

For decades, UCLA astrophysics and astronomy graduate students have volunteered to teach visitors about the universe every Wednesday evening for free.

This is done through what the department calls “special topic” shows, which focus on specific topics that graduate students choose to present.

A projector in the middle of the planetarium runs the star show, which precedes all of the presentations. After the presentations, visitors can peek into a telescope directed by the Undergraduate Astronomical Society.

The presentation consists of a graduate student presenting a slideshow to educate the audience about their chosen topics, which can range from binary stars to the Milky Way galaxy.

Visitors said the presentation portion was very enriching and interesting.

“I think (the presenter) was very knowledgeable ““ she taught us a lot,” said Sravya Mallam, a first-year psychology student.

Presenters said the audience can also be filled with undergraduate students taking astronomy classes.

It is often difficult to picture what happens in the sky, so the planetarium helps the students visualize what they have been learning, said Christopher Crockett, an astrophysics graduate student, planetarium coordinator and a former teaching assistant to undergraduates.

Presenters said that it is fulfilling to see visitors enjoying the planetarium.

“I’ll give shows and have college students really having a good time, little kids really enthusiastic, and then even the adults are also excited,” said Kevin Hainline, also an astrophysics graduate student and planetarium coordinator.

Crockett said he likes to hear that visitors are telling others about the planetarium.

“It’s very rewarding any time I get a show and have people come up afterwards to just say how much they’ve enjoyed it, and they’re going to be coming back and bringing friends,” he said.

In addition to public shows, groups like elementary schools and UCLA student groups reserve private shows.

Branching out to the community and bringing in particularly disadvantaged youths or underrepresented groups in the sciences is a really rewarding experience, Crockett said.

The planetarium is willing to educate all types of audiences, including ones that are non-native English speakers.

The first bilingual presentation was hosted a week ago by a graduate student from Puerto Rico, who spoke in both English and Spanish to English as a Second Language middle school students.

Though the community service that the planetarium offers has been generous, UCLA astronomers said that a new projector donated to the planetarium would definitely benefit both visitors and students.

Educating communities beyond UCLA might be a way to attract a potential donor who would contribute to funding for a new projector, Crockett said.

A more technologically advanced projector would be able to imitate the night sky and zoom in on specific solar objects, Crockett said.

Though the existing projector has been working well for the past few years, a new projector could incorporate digital images from modern telescopes into the star show, he added.

“I think it would be a nice way for somebody to really contribute to (not only) our mission here at UCLA but also to something that the community can share in,” said Mark Morris, professor of astronomy and vice chairman of the astronomy and astrophysics department.

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Adrienne Law
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