Teach for the stars: VCSU planetarium class shares its talents

In a pitch-dark room on the third floor of VCSU’s Rhoades Science Center, a small group of students meets weekly to gaze at the night sky.
With their necks craned back and their eyes fixed on the heavenly dome of North Dakota’s only planetarium, the class uses laptops and a projection control panel to play a stellar show that they have created from start to finish.

“Finding Polaris II” is an instructional tour through the night sky that was written, voiced and produced by students in instructor Wes Anderson’s Planetarium Science Class.

“We took a project idea that was done a few years ago, and we took the same idea and applied it to different constellations,” said senior Joey Ostgarden. “It’s a combination of a movie that we make and it can be shown on the four different projectors at the same time.”

An homage to the first “Finding Polaris” project from 2004, in this version a student gets a personal guided tour of the night sky by none other than Polaris, the North Star himself, this time visiting with some of the major stars of the springtime sky: Arcturus, Spica, Regulus, Capella, and Thuban.

“It’s very hands-on,” said junior Burke Tagney. “We make the script and do voice-overs for the show, then match it up with the video. It was a lot of fun.”

“They’re creating an entire show from scratch,” Anderson added. “It’s basically like radio.”

In addition to learning basics of astronomy, like how to locate stars and constellations, students learn the mythology and history of the heavens far beyond just the Big Dipper and North Star. The planetarium also offers a monthly public show, and schools are also able to make reservations for field trips, where class members are paid to staff the planetarium and guide tours.

Built in 1973, the planetarium still uses vacuum tubes and basic lighting for many of its functions, but as Anderson says, “this is the technology that got us to the moon.”

However, the viewing technology has improved vastly from 35 millimeter slide projectors.

“When I started teaching here in 2002, it was an obsolete experience, and finally we got ourselves into digital light projectors,” Anderson said.

This year, Ostgarden helped the class make the transition to digital copies of the shows instead of using old DVDs.

“We have a lot less of the shows degrading and the quality of the audio going down. Everything’s digital now,” he said.

The students primarily use computer programs Pinnacle and Windows Media Player to sync the video and audio portions of the show.
“This is really a real-world application of what they’re learning in their other classes,” Anderson said.

More than just the scientific and technical aspects, the class is charged with using their artistic talents to make the show entertaining. The students said they use comedy and present the stars and constellations as characters that interact and banter with each other in the night sky.

“We had to give each character a different background and personality,” said Tagney. “One of my characters was a grizzled old man, and Polaris is sort of the snobby, wise-cracking jock, and we had a hippie.”
“It’s the easiest way to tell the stars apart from each other,” said Ostgarden.

The class’s goal is to eventually wrangle the technology so the class can use the planetarium’s capabilities to their full potential. They would like to show a different image on each of the four projected screens or show a seamless 360 image with all the projectors.

“Not yet, but there’s a lot of big plans for the future,” said Ostgarden. “We just need the programs.”

“And money!” chimed Anderson.

While there is always a need for funding equipment in the planetarium, several of the students are able to attend the class thanks to the Aaron Sours Scholarship. Sours was a former classmate of Anderson’s who was killed in a car accident in 2005, and his mother left a scholarship for students who are interested in the course.

“We do this for fun,” said senior Stephany Wegenast, who has taken the course three times and is signed up for a fourth. “this is definitely my fun class.”

After working on the show for months, the students will finally get to see their hard work come to life this weekend. The world premiere of “Finding Polaris II” will take place Saturday, April 21 at 2 p.m. in Room 310 of the Rhoades Science Center. The show is free, and the public is welcome to attend.