Experts show and tell about stars, bears and cells at UAA’s planetarium

The University of Alaska Planetarium and Visualization Theater celebrated its 10-year anniversary in January with free shows, activities and guest presenters.

Over the years, nearly 100,000 visitors have experienced the planetarium’s wide range of shows on subjects such as astronomy, the environment and philosophy, according to the UAA 10 year anniversary webpage.

The ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building was completed in October 2008 and the UAA Planetarium and Visualization Theater opened in January 2009. Photo courtesy of photographer Chris Arend via the Cornerstone General Contractors website.

The UAA Planetarium and Visualization Theater was built as a part of the ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building after ConocoPhillips Alaska, Inc. pledged $15 million to support sciences and engineering, according to the UAA campus map webpage.

Travis Rector, Ph. D., chair of the department of physics and astronomy, helped design the planetarium with a focus on education.

“The idea was that it would create opportunities for people in the community to come to UAA and benefit from the scientific expertise that we have at our campus,” Rector said. “Our shows aren’t just movies… [they] always have a live component where you get to talk to… an expert in the field… [and] ask questions and learn more about the topic.”

The way astronomy is taught at UAA is unique from other universities, Rector said.

“We’re one of the very few universities in the world where students are actually in the planetarium for every class,” Rector said. “The biggest advantage of it is that it helps people think three-dimensionally. It [helps convey] spatial relationships. Much of astronomy is understanding those spatial relationships.”

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Students learn better as a result of utilizing the planetarium in science and astronomy courses, Rector said.

“We use the planetarium technology to improve the teaching and what we’ve found is that students actually learn much better on the topics that do use the planetarium than the topics that don’t,” Rector said.

Omega Smith, the planetarium manager, echoed Rector’s sentiment in her own astronomy education.

“When I was taking astronomy classes, I probably could’ve learned a lot more of the concepts quicker if I had 3D visualizations of them instead of my [professors] poorly [drawing] orbits on a whiteboard,” Smith said.

Along with UAA classes, public shows on numerous scientific fields have subjects that benefit from using a planetarium as a visualization tool, Erin Hicks, Ph.D., assistant professor and director of the UAA Planetarium and Visualization Theater, said.

“We think of astronomy because that’s traditionally been done in a planetarium, but a complex data set is a complex data set, whether we’re talking about the distribution of stars in a galaxy or neurons in the human brain… whatever the case may be,” Hicks said. “We have a great geology show [that] provides… visualizations to see fault lines and how things work within the planet.”

The planetarium can also be used for medical purposes.

The UAA Planetarium and Visualization Theater cost about $1.2 million and is one of the nicest in the country, Travis Rector, chair of the UAA department of physics and astronomy, said.Photo courtesy of photographer Chris Arend via the Cornerstone General Contractors website.

“We have a complete digital theater. We can do 3D modeling. We can put any data set in and actually take your CAT scans and put them up on the planetarium and fly through [them],” Smith said. “It’s a lot more in-depth than just astronomy.”

During these public shows, there is always an expert in the room to answer questions, Hicks said.

“We have experts from our community come and talk about what’s going on right here [in Alaska]. It’s a chance for the public to interact with those people,” Hicks said.

UAA also produces its own shows for the UAA Planetarium and Visualization Theater, Smith said.

“It’s content that is strictly Alaskan, which is great. It’s something that we can do that’s purely us and Alaskan,” Smith said.

Rector helped create the first nature documentary with Open Lens Productions for the UAA Planetarium and Visualization Theater called “River of Bears.” The documentary focuses on the brown bears of McNeil River and was released in 2014.

Rector initially created “River of Bears” because he and his wife won the McNeil lottery, where 10 people are able to go to McNeil River and watch the bears, and wanted to share the experience with more people.

“Many people don’t like the idea of sleeping in a tent in bear country. We took our full-dome camera system out to McNeil River over three summers and filmed the experience so that people can see the bears of McNeil River without actually having to go,” Rector said.

That was the first time anyone has ever done a live-action nature documentary with full-dome technology, Rector and Smith said.

Rector hopes that everyone will have the chance to experience the UAA Planetarium and Visualization theater.

“I hope that students, faculty and the community will take advantage of our planetarium. It’s a great resource, and we’re lucky to have it,” Rector said.

Two upcoming shows in the UAA Planetarium and Visualization Theater are on Nov. 8. “Seeing! A Photon’s Journey Across” is about how human vision works. “Habitat Earth” focuses on the relationships of plant and animal life in different ecosystems. Tickets to both shows are on sale on the UAATix website, costing $10 for the general public and $5 for students taking six credits or more. A yearly UAA Planetarium membership can also be purchased on the UAA Planetarium and Visualization Theater webpage for $15 for students.