On any given weekday, a bus pulls up to the east side of the College of Southern Nevada’s Cheyenne campus and a gaggle of children get off and scuffle inside. CSN’s Pam Maher, also known as “the planetarium lady,” greets them, shows them inside the theater, asks everyone to turn off their cell phones and turns out the lights.
“Are you ready for a star party?” she asks and dozens of children scream, “Yes!”
Then they stop fidgeting and talking among themselves and for the next 30 minutes or so the silhouettes of their fingers can be seen pointing at the screen that surrounds them. Occasionally, one will say “wow” or “cool” or “shhhhhh!” They clap when the show is over, ending a complex lesson about refracting and reflecting telescopes.
With the end of the space shuttle program, the onus is on education to motivate children to dream about the next frontier. The CSN Planetarium is ready to tackle that challenge with support from the community.
A staple field trip for most K-12 students in Clark County, the CSN Planetarium has been inciting curiosity about the stars since it opened in February 1977. The only planetarium in Southern Nevada, with the exception of the private planetarium in former Nevada Lt. Gov. Lonnie Hammargren’s home, the facility is in need of a namesake.
By all accounts, the end of the shuttle program marks the conclusion of a high-profile and highly persuasive marketing tool that has excited children about space exploration, math and sciences for decades.
“The CSN Planetarium is needed now more than ever to provide the building blocks for would-be astronauts,” said Robbie Graham, CSN Foundation Board of Trustees chair and president of NTC Global Holding Group. “We’re hoping someone in the community will step up and provide a gift that will allow the planetarium to improve that experience, so that children can continue to dream about taming the heavens for generations to come.”
Approximately 12,000 K-12 students a year visit the CSN Planetarium. With a library of more than 25 different shows, the CSN Planetarium provides teachers with their pick of entertaining footage to fit whatever science topic their students are learning about at the time.
“It’s an experience that is so totally different from the classroom. The planetarium is very dynamic and combined with the fact that they are on a field trip, the students tend to get very excited about science when they visit,” said Dr. Dale Etheridge, CSN Planetarium director and professor.
While many of the planetarium’s shows are in the field of astronomy, the planetarium aims to excite students about all of the sciences, Etheridge said. The CSN Planetarium is opening a new show Sept. 2 called “Natural Selection,” about Charles Darwin and the voyage of the Beagle, the expedition that led the naturalist to develop the theory of evolution.
Last year, the planetarium went high definition with its video projectors. The new planetarium projection equipment provides visitors with a much sharper and brighter image. That will help in Etheridge’s efforts to encourage students to explore the world around them.
“Over the next couple of years, private commercial space travel will become more obvious and it will be our role to help keep that in the public eye,” he said. “We will continue to emphasize the unmanned missions that are occurring.”