Tuesday, September 17, 2019

College’s Planetariums a Hit at KidCon

Visitors prepare to enter one of two planetariums during KidCon.

Salt Lake City’s biggest annual costume party had something uniquely “outta this world” for kids at this year’s KidCon, the quasi child of the wildly popular FanX.

Janalee Harrison, physics lab coordinator for Salt Lake Community College, brought two giant  planetariums, put them in a large room and watched children become wowed by what was inside. Harrison borrowed from KidCon’s pirate theme to add even more fun to the experience.

“I pretended to be a pirate captain and the kids had joined my crew,” Harrison says. “After ‘boarding’ the planetarium, we learned there was a mutiny and we had all been marooned on a deserted island. We then had to figure out where we were and how we were oriented and then we could navigate off the island.”

About 2,000 children (and adults) visited the silver and blue Portable Planetarium Systems over the course of three days in early September. Once inside the blue “Digitalis” planetarium, kids used the sun and stars to determine longitude and latitude and a north orientation, “just like ancient sailors,” Harrison notes. Then they navigated off the island to end the 20-minute show. The shows ran non-stop each day and were at maximum capacity each time. “Our public debut was a big hit and a great success,” Harrison says.

The silver planetarium in the room is the old StarLab the college purchased in 1984 – yes, it still works! It projects a star field via a gel over a lightbulb for a more simplified show that focuses on finding and identifying a few constellations, the North Star and measuring latitude. In busier times during KidCon, the silver sister to the more popular blue planetarium handled some of the overflow.

Harrison said using the planetariums was a way for SLCC student volunteers during KidCon to gain leadership experience, ideas for research projects and hands-on time with a STEM-related experience. “I knew Salt Lake City’s FanX would be a great way to reach a lot of people, and their KidCon event is S.T.E.A.M. centered – so, I knew we would fit right in,” Harrison says. The show she developed focused on astronavigation.

Most things and experiences at FanX and KidCon cost money, but Harrison was able to keep the planetarium show free, much to the “surprise and relief” of otherwise hesitant parents. She also made sure that it was ADA compatible, which meant many children with disabilities were able to participate. “Our interactions with them were always very special, and I’m pleased we could provide that service,” Harrison says.

Harrison was helped by SLCC student volunteers, SLCC’s TRIO STEM volunteers and a crew of others. By networking during KidCon with other organizations, SLCC gained potential partners interested in hosting the planetarium experience during future events. “KidCon has already invited us back,” she says. “So, if you missed us this year, you can catch us next year.”