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​New Planetarium Director Reaches Beyond the Classroom

In the 1960s, with the United States locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, government funding for science initiatives flowed to all corners of the country. One way in which the funding manifested itself was in the creation of planetaria, which reflected the public’s fascination with space exploration. Locally, a planetarium was built on the campus of UW-Stevens Point, where is continues to serve students and the public alike after more than five decades.

“For years, planetaria have been used for classroom instruction and for informal presentations for the general public — It’s for everybody,” says Sebastian Zamfir, who served last year as interim director of the Allen F. Blocher Planetarium and Arthur J. Pejsa Observatory and assumes the job on a permanent basis this fall. “This is how it works on our campus as well, and we are trying to reach more and more beyond the walls of the classroom.”

Zamfir (right, with Astronomy 205 class)  is the planetarium’s seventh director, taking over from Randy Olson, who had held the position since 1985. The first director was Blocher, who began his UW-Stevens Point teaching career in 1958 and was instrumental in designing the planetarium, which opened in 1963. Olson, along with immediate predecessors Mark Bernstein and Norman Higginbotham, oversaw the production, adaptation and delivery of more than 11,000 shows serving more than 370,000 attendees since the late 1970s.

Currently shows are offered to the general public on Sunday afternoons during the academic year, along with weeknight shows twice per week for two months during the summer. Olson was also responsible for building a strong pipeline to regional school districts; Zamfir estimates the facility serves 250 to 300 schools groups every year.

The planetarium serves UW-Stevens Point students enrolled in introductory astronomy classes, providing visual descriptions of celestial spheres, constellations, motions of planets, seasons, and other phenomena understood best with associated visuals. It was also used last year for a new interdisciplinary course, the History of Astronomy. Students work in the planetarium during their time on campus, and over the years many have gone on to careers with planetaria around the country.

“It’s wonderful to work with the student lecturers, to coordinate them for delivering presentations,” says Zamfir. “I love the fact that students enjoy what they do. Most of them are attracted to this field and really want to continue beyond graduation.”

The way in which planetaria are used has evolved in the years since the Cold War space race, and may influence the way the Blocher Planetarium functions going forward.

“At the [Great Lakes Planetarium Association] conference last October, I learned that the role of a planetarium has expanded tremendously in the modern age,” says Zamfir. “It is a theater not only regarded as a tool for delivering astronomy-related concepts, but also as an environment for visualization. My main idea is we should expand the use of this theater beyond astronomy classes and encourage other professors to use the facility, engage curriculum in the area of the geosciences, anatomy, and others.”

Fulfilling this vision will require an equipment upgrade. While the planetarium’s Spitz projector is still considered a leading opto-mechanical system, the current system also uses a series of Kodak slide projectors which are no longer manufactured. As such, finding replacement units or parts, and making necessary repairs, is difficult and expensive. This spring, Spitz representatives were on campus to demonstrate the company’s latest digital planetarium technology called SciDome.

A new system would allow the planetarium to deliver new shows to the public, shows designed specifically for digital media. The shows would emphasize the fast-advancing area of astronomy, space exploration and more. It would also allow for the local creation of planetarium shows; Zamfir envisions UW-Stevens Point students working with local middle and high school students on this creative activity.

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