Ward Beecher Planetarium Goes Virtual

By Joseph Chapman

Curt Spivey stands in front of the Chronos Space Simulator, the machine that projects the night sky onto the planetarium ceiling. Photo by Kamron Meyers/The Jambar

Ward Beecher Planetarium provided live, virtual planetarium shows, as well as other pre-recorded science programming, to the public when the pandemic began.

During spring, the planetarium held their live show “Keep Looking Up”  virtually every week. This fall, they are holding shows on every second and fourth Saturday of each month. The team uses Stellarium, a virtual planetarium program, to do a show similar in looks to the in-person show. Additionally, the planetarium will post pre-recorded content on Facebook and YouTube. 

The shows will include a children’s program titled “Starry Storytime” and “Out-of-This-World News,” a show about astronomy news and space launches. “Explore Science,” a show teaching elementary school children at-home science experiments, will be ongoing. They will also show “Life of A Scientist,” which is a biography-style show about famous scientists. Tiffany Stone Wolbrecht, planetarium lecturer, said the show examines the scientists’ incredible achievements.

“We want people to realize that even these great successful scientists, who’ve made amazing contributions to our understanding of the world are still people, and they still have struggles just like we do,” she said.

Wolbrecht said there were some advantages in the transition to online programming.

Photo by Kamron Meyers/The Jambar

“I mean, we lose the dome, and we lose that immersive experience of getting people under the dome. And I don’t think that we can replace that. We want people to come to the planetarium under normal times,” she said. “But you know, there are advantages to engaging online. We are able to meet, we’re able to talk to and engage with larger audiences even outside of our community. People who could not physically come to the planetarium can more easily tune in on their phone or their computer.”

The audience of the planetarium expanded from local viewers since the pandemic began. Curt Spivey, the planetarium engineer, said, “We’re getting people from around the world. What it is, is if a friend on Facebook sees us and we actually have some really loyal visitors down in Columbus. We’ve had them in Chicago. Just expanding the reach of what our planetarium does to literally worldwide as opposed to the Mahoning Valley has been a huge plus.”

Ward Beecher Planetarium director and astronomy professor Patrick Durell said they are continuing to develop programs and continue education.

“We’ve always been about experimenting and trying new things, to try to educate people about astronomy and space and earth science, and we’re not stopping,” he said. “And who knows? Some people might watch the virtual stuff and go, ‘Wow, I didn’t know they did this kind of stuff. I really like this.’ You know, the star shows are wonderful. But well, this other program is really kind of neat.”

Spivey said he’s looking forward to holding programs inside the dome again, but may still continue to hold virtual shows. 

 Just as we’ll take what we’ve learned from our virtual and use that when we go back to live in the planetarium for sure,” he said.

Durrell said the virtual shows pushed them to innovation and to create different kinds of content, like the pre-recorded videos. 

“These were things that we would normally think of putting in as part of a program, to make it a short stand alone thing is something we probably wouldn’t have done without virtual components,” he said. 

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