Fiske Planetarium: Out of this world student experiences across disciplines

Published: July 29, 2014

Deep in the recesses of Fiske Planetarium is a film production studio that is not visible to the public. This cool, dimly lit room, which feels more like a very high-tech cave, houses an impressive collection of digital film production equipment and is home to a small team of staff and students.

Staff here are working on educational films that will be screened at Fiske as well as other planetariums across the country. It is not a large team, considering the professional level of the educational films they are producing. Kurt Ross, a CU-Boulder senior majoring in molecular, cellular and developmental biology and film production, is sitting at a computer working on creating animations that illustrate certain concepts of the film they are producing.

“Working at Fiske has been incredibly beneficial to me," said Ross. "It’s a great way to ease into the industry because there are so many knowledgeable people around who understand the student schedule and mind. Students get cutting-edge experience, and the planetarium gets skilled and motivated artists for cheap. It benefits everyone involved, including those who contract us.”

In the planetarium's main auditorium, Chloe Stabler, an astrophysics and psychology double major, is operating the dome (a 65-foot diameter, ultra high-definition screen). As a show operator, Stabler oversees everything that happens in the theater during shows. This includes displaying images on the dome as well as providing the live narration that goes along with it. After graduation, Stabler hopes to continue in the field of science education, but outside of the classroom. 

“I feel there's a lot that can be offered in terms of scientific public outreach and learning that doesn't have to be in a formal classroom with grades and tests," she said. "Fiske is a great place to get to talk to people about science and astronomy, no matter their age or what they do. My favorite part of doing shows is when people come up afterwards to ask questions or talk more about the subject.”

In addition to a handful of full-time staff, the planetarium relies heavily on a team of up to 40 student workers at a time in order to operate, according to Doug Duncan, Fiske Planetarium director and astrophysical and planetary sciences professor.

“Because of the many students who work here, Fiske is able to competitively deliver outstanding programming to the university and to the public, and many students are able to use it as a resource to build their careers while they are at CU-Boulder," Duncan said. "They eventually graduate and leave with strong professional references and the experience to get jobs, be it in film, advertising, or delivering educational programming to the public."

But Fiske provides another world of benefits to students, and not just ones that are related to astrophysics.

As education programs manager at Fiske, Matthew Benjamin works with faculty across disciplines to find those synergies between their needs for an immersive teaching tool and the technology that Fiske offers. For example, Benjamin explains that for faculty who do computer modeling of data, Fiske can be a great place to present it to their students in a very compelling way. And because of his experience with both curriculum development and also the technological capabilities of the planetarium, Benjamin is able to collaborate with them to figure out how best to use the planetarium as a teaching tool.

“The key is that we tailor their materials to meet the exact needs that they have, be it coursework and materials for K-12 education or for CU-Boulder’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences,” said Benjamin. “This isn’t just a place to drop off your students. We want to collaborate with you long before you bring them here.”

In order to truly represent the scope of activities that go on at Fiske, maybe it’s time to stop thinking of it as a planetarium, instead calling it the Fiske Digital Theater.

“People have the wrong impression about this place, and it’s all because of that big circular roof outside,” says Benjamin, referring to the distinctive dome which is often used for illuminating the universe. “The truth is, our staff members are able to tailor content from a wide range of disciplines across campus, and use our facilities to deliver that content to students in a meaningful, engaging way.”

Two new shows are opening at the Fiske this summer: “Back to the Moon for Good,” and “The Life of Trees.