Friday, March 24, 2000

Planetarium projects kids into the stars

At Burnet Woods' 50-year-old dome, children study the heavens the way their parents did

Enquirer contributor

        With strains of the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey in the background, Cincinnati Park Board naturalist Dean Regas has captured the attention of a small group of Girl Scouts who are visiting the Wolff Planetarium.

        Slowly, he lowers the lights. “Now hold on to your seats,” he commands. Eleven small pairs of hands fly obediently to their sides. The room plunges into darkness, with only the constellations illuminating the small space.

        Dum, dum, DA DUM! The music intones the importance of the moment. A collective intake of breath, then squeals of delight.

        “Wow!” “Ohhh” “I see it!” “Cool!” The girls from Troop 417 of Villa Madonna Academy in Villa Hills have lifted off into outer space.

  • What: Wolff Planetarium
  • When: 7-8 p.m. on the second and fourth Fridays and 3-4 p.m. the second and fourth Sundays (except holidays). Seating is limited; reservations encouraged.
  • Where: Inside the Trailside Nature Center on Brookline Drive in Burnet Woods, Clifton
  • Programs:
  March: “The Science of the Zodiac,” 7-8 p.m. today and 3-4 p.m. Sunday
  April: “Spring Constellations,” 7-8 p.m. April 14 and 28, and 3-4 p.m. April 9
  • Cost: $2
  • Information and reservations: 751-3679
  • There's more: The planetarium may be reserved for private functions or school groups.
        Their vastly shrunken universe is inside the Trailside Nature Center in Clifton's Burnet Woods. The Wolff Planetarium, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, remains one of Cincinnati's best-kept secrets. Housed in a 20-foot-square room with a 12-foot (diameter) dome, the planetarium is decidedly low-tech and proud of it.

        “You're not going to get a recording of Leonard Nimoy's deep voice talking about the stars and planets,” Mr. Regas says. “You're going to get me.”

        One balmy March afternoon, the girls are learning how to identify the various constellations and planets in the Cincinnati sky and the myths behind them. A projector simulates the sun, moon and stars on the inside of the dome.

        Mr. Regas begins the hour-long presentation by demonstrating some of the “high tech” devices used at the planetarium, one of two working planetariums in the city. (The other being Drake Planetarium at Norwood High School.)

        An old worn blanket (“feel how soft it is and notice the stitching,” he solemnly intones) is used to block out any stray light. Duct tape holds together parts of the 50-year-old projector.

        Once the lights are dimmed, the search for familiar shapes begins. Mr. Regas uses terms and stories that the kids can relate to and understand.

        When Mr. Regas explains the story of Orion the Hunter and the Seven Sisters, the Hunter's smelly armpits become a factor in the tale.

        “Does he wear deodorant?” asks a small voice in the darkness. Giggles and shrieks erupt from the group.

        As the search continues for other constellations, Mr. Regas quizzes the kids. “Who do you think this is?,” pointing to the constellation of Cepheus.

        “Superman?” “God?” “Batman?” “Hercules?” suggest the girls.

        After explaining the correct answer, Mr. Regas continues with his tales. The origins of the Canis Major constellation are related as a story about a dog chasing a rabbit through the sky.

        Mr. Regas crosses the room to hit the tape player again, and Elvis Presley's “Hound Dog” fills the room. The girls sing along in unison: “You ain't nothin' but a hound dog!”

        When the lights are temporarily raised to explain the phases of the moon, Mr. Regas' technique continues in low-tech mode.

        He produces a soccer ball painted half black. As he walks around the room, slowly turning the ball to reveal a new moon, crescent moon, half moon and full moon, Mr. Regas asks, “How long do you think the cycles of the moon take to complete?”

        Again the answers fly from the group. “An hour?” “A week?” “A day?”

        “How do you spell "month' and how do you spell "moon'?” quizzes Mr. Regas. Suddenly, the girls see the connection and hands pop in the air to give the correct answer of a month.

        After the presentation in the planetarium, the girls are led to a separate room for some star-gazing related crafts. As the troop and their Scout leaders poke pin holes in empty film canisters to create their own miniature constellations, the girls are eager to share their impressions.

        Tori Duncan, 9, of Fort Mitchell, is surprised to find out that the North Star isn't the brightest one in the sky: It's the 50th brightest. Upon learning that Earth was rotating at 770 miles per hour, Tori remarks that “I wasn't really scared, but it did get my head spinning.”

        Casey Jackson, 8, of Hebron, is impressed with Mr. Regas' stories and especially liked his tales of the Big Dipper and Little Dipper as a mother and baby bear flung into the skies by a persistent hunter.

        For several of the girls, this is their first trip to a planetarium.

        “This was a lot neater than a lot of field trips,” says Kelly Schroer, 8, of Park Hills. “I really liked it when the lights went out and we got to see the stars. He (Mr. Regas) was very funny.”

        Julia Volpenheim, 8, of Union, liked the fact that Mr. Regas pointed out her zodiac sign, Taurus, during the presentation. “Mine was the only one he showed,” she says proudly. “I did get kind of dizzy when he started spinning the stars around.”

        After their crafts, the girls learn even more about the constellations and planets, but this time with a little more of a hands-on approach.

        With Kelly posing as Orion the Hunter, the other girls are given the task of placing the correct stars on her limbs and head as they had seen in the planetarium. There is considerable giggling when the whole armpit issue comes up again.

        Another demonstration of the moon's phases completes the day's visit. With the girls holding a small styrofoam ball stuck on a pencil to represent the moon and a single light bulb in the room's center as the sun, Mr. Regas instructs them to slowly turn in a circle. When the balls are spun away from the “sun,” the various phases of the moon quickly become apparent as crescent-shaped shadows on the balls.

        As the girls leave the Nature Center this bright afternoon, many of them peer into the late afternoon sky, hoping to get that first glimpse of a mommy bear and her baby, kings and queens sitting at their thrones, dogs chasing rabbits across the sky, and, oh yeah, that really large armpit.


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