Published: Nov. 3, 2015

Fiske Planetarium in front of the Flatirons

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Professor John Bally, a professor of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences, was awarded a Fall 2014 ASSETT Development Award, which he used towards making new visualizations in the Fiske Planetarium to use with undergraduate introductory astrophysics classes. The visualizations were created from data from multiple expeditions and even GIS projections of Mars. Bally used these new visualizations along with trying a new way of teaching ASTR 1200—Stars and Galaxies—by having classes in the Fiske Planetarium part time. Every Thursday the class would meet in the Fiske Planetarium and utilize the new visualizations that were developed using the money from the Development Award.

The class consisted of 15 dome lectures, while the rest of the lectures all took part in a traditional classroom setting. When asked about the experience, Bally said that while the planetarium provides a unique an immersive experience, the risks of teaching in such an environment cannot be ignored. Because of the comfy chairs, the dark area, and the overall relaxing atmosphere, students can sometimes drift off and even end up falling asleep. To combat this, Bally interspersed lectures in the planetarium with clicker questions, discussion questions, and even sometimes with loud noises and bright flashes of light—like those that come from simulating a supernova.

Bally’s biggest message from this is that the planetarium is a great learning supplement, and is great with visualizations and putting things in perspective: like why Pluto is no longer considered a planet. There’s other features such as the ability to move around with a joystick and look at far off stars, or even the Mars landscape, that makes using the planetarium interactive and provides experiences that can’t be achieved in a classroom with a computer.

“With some sparing things, you can provide some absolutely unique experiences for the students… I think the message is you’ve got to use it sparingly… I’m glad we did it. We learned some things. We put together some stunning materials that people can use and will use; we also learned not to do it full time.”

Bally also mentioned that while all of the new visualizations and learning modules used for this class are partially documented and are available for other teachers and professors to use, at the time, it’d be a bit of a challenge because of the lack of a user manual.