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November 2007
Volume 2, Number 11

Journey to the Stars With Delta College

Susan Montesi

Although the word “community” may not be part of Delta’s name, it is certainly evident in the college’s vision statement, “Delta College is our community’s first choice to learn, work, and grow.” The main campus is a 640-acre complex located in a rural area affectionately called “the Cornfield.” Because it is somewhat hidden from view, Delta College has repeatedly sought ways to increase its presence in the three counties it serves (Bay, Midland, and Saginaw). In addition to college public radio and television stations, the Delta College Planetarium and Learning Center has become a primary way to directly link the college to residents of all ages.

The center’s distinctive design makes it a landmark in Bay City, and it is often used in the promotion and marketing of the region. Local leaders acknowledge that this facility was the catalyst to significant development and revitalization in the downtown Bay City area over the past 10 years. The positive support given by the citizens of Bay County to the most recent Delta College millage was greater than any ever before. Community leadership and residents now feel more connected to Delta College and appreciate its efforts.

NASA Grant

In 1993, Delta College secured a NASA grant totaling $8.75 million to fund the design and construction of a facility that would provide a learning environment to foster an appreciation of the significance, relevance, and application of the sciences. To create a better understanding of the wonders of the universe, this facility would present stimulating, high-quality educational programs by

  • Expanding Delta College’s educational outreach within the tri-county and surrounding areas;
  • Promoting learning application themes to people of all ages and cultures;
  • Enhancing community knowledge of space and its exploration; and
  • Providing opportunities for educational and community partnerships.

The entire facility was designed to represent outer space and space exploration. For example, the Sun is the center of our solar system; therefore, the planetarium theater is at the center of the building. Its exterior is bright red and orange to represent the true colors of the Sun’s gases. The rest of the building’s exterior is black like the darkness of space. Rooms on the lower level are named for elements in our solar system, whereas rooms on the upper level are named for objects found in deep space. The lobby floor contains stars and constellations, and the multipurpose room is called the Space Explorer’s Hall and contains flags of all countries with space explorers. Building room windows are round because space objects are round, and circular lobby skylights represent moons of the solar system. Even the walls of the stair tower are painted blue, gray, and black to represent day, twilight, and night. The building’s design itself teaches children about space and our solar system.

The facility includes the planetarium/theater complex, seven classrooms, a computer lab, a multipurpose assembly/exhibit space, a gift shop, a rooftop observation deck, a conference room, a catering kitchen, and modular offices. The planetarium has a Digistar II projection system housed in a tilted 50-foot dome with 130 unidirectional seats allowing for audience-driven interactive programming. This computerized star projection system and integrated audiovisual equipment can simulate 3D space travel, and provides unique learning applications for multiple disciplines, not only astronomy. The college is now seeking funding to upgrade the equipment.

Educational Value

Education is the most important function of the planetarium, and it illustrates concepts in ways that make them more meaningful and visual to people of all ages. It is also a place to inspire children to pursue careers in science, technology, and education, and it informs the community about the amazing events in our universe. Light pollution—the needless shining of light into the night sky—has robbed entire generations of the chance to see nature on it largest scale. It is estimated that as many as 80 percent of the population has never even glimpsed the Milky Way. Unlike an observatory, which houses telescopes and needs clear skies to view the night sky, the planetarium brings the night sky inside, independent of time of day and weather.

Wonders of the night sky become magic. Planetarium staff still get goose bumps when a class of second graders first sees the planetarium’s night sky and responds with oohs and ahs; it indeed has a “wow factor.” Planetarium shows inspire the imagination using an “edutainment” approach to programming. For example, to demonstrate the vastness of the universe, staff compare the Earth to a grain of sand.

In today’s space age, we are changing the perceptions of space from a 2D-flat image to full motion 3D. We are changing earth-centered views of our lives and the universe around us by showing the expanse of space and its mind-blowing volume through the Hubble ultra-deep field and the digital images of millions of galaxies never before seen or imagined. Fifteen years ago, we started using the phrase “think globally”; now we need to start getting people to “think universally.” Our understanding of the universe may be a major factor in the survival of our planet. The center’s best programs blend scientific knowledge, philosophy, and imagination.

Since the facility began operation 10 years ago, nearly 300,000 people have attended the planetarium shows, including 160,000 children who have become excited about science. We have developed a library of programs for preschool through college levels and have cross-referenced all programs to the Michigan K-12 science curriculum benchmarks. The planetarium is handicap accessible, and we make available a pair of glow-in-the-dark gloves used for sign language.

The center annually conducts teacher workshops about our solar system, weather, physical science principles, space exploration topics, demonstration techniques, games, and classroom simulations, and provides NASA and other teacher-resource packets. Many planetarium shows have specific guides for teachers to use both before and after the show. Delta’s website has a special section titled, “Just for Teachers and Scout Leaders,” listing suggested classroom activities, NASA educational programs, links to other websites, and projects for students.

It is very likely that children being born today will have the opportunity to travel in space instead of simply hearing or reading about it. It is the center’s obligation to encourage learning and provide the catalyst for curiosity and innovation.

Links to the Community

From its beginning, the center sought ways to be a good neighbor, build partnerships for educational endeavors, provide quality services and programs for people of all ages, and maintain a unique learning facility that would serve the needs of Delta College students and guests. Such outreach results in the enrollment of 1,000 academic students annually in a variety of general education courses, and partnerships with 42 community agencies, tri-county school districts, and NASA. Development of special programs for scouts, families, senior citizens, downtown Bay City festivals and holiday events, and the rental of our facilities to businesses and not-for-profit groups for employee training, sponsored seminars, computer simulations, and celebrations are other outcomes. The planetarium’s special accomplishments include

  • Dark Water, Silver Stars, stargazing cruises on a local tall ship/schooner twice a month during the summer;
  • Summer Explore and Experience, week-long science programs for children ages 7 to 11, in partnership with the local historical museum, art gallery, and state park;
  • Astronomy Day, telescope workshops, and special topic seminars including telescope stargazing, lunar eclipses, comet observations, and other sky events cosponsored with our local amateur astronomy clubs on our observation deck;
  • Under the stars weddings in our planetarium theater;
  • Diversity exhibits and special planetarium programs celebrating Native American, Hispanic, and African-American sky legends and lore;
  • Hell’s Half Mile Film Festival, which bears the nickname of center’s surrounding area during the logging period in Bay City;
  • Site of the first micropark sponsored by the local Rotary Club to honor the legends and legacies of Bay City;
  • Independence Day fireworks festival and fundraiser for our endowment fund;
  • Monthly series of Saturday science workshops for kids; and
  • Cosponsoring and hosting school science fair and Michigan History Day.

Another distinct feature of the planetarium is a large sundial that tells time using a person’s shadow. Plus, there’s a community solar system that is a scale model of our solar system designed by a local 14-year-old student (with the technical assistance of our astronomers). Specially shaped signs, beginning with the Sun at our planetarium and ending with the dwarf planet, Pluto, at a city library 18 miles away, explain each planet’s size, rotation, revolution around the Sun, and other interesting facts.

The Delta College Planetarium and Learning Center has indeed brought the universe into focus in the tri-county area, and invites everyone to “Journey to the Stars” with Delta.

Susan Montesi is Dean of Learning Centers and Innovative Programs at Delta College. Photos are courtesy of Delta College Astronomer, William Mitchell.

Cynthia Wilson, Editor