October 24, 2014

Charles W. Brown Planetarium
The Charles W. Brown Planetarium opened to the public in November 2014.

Sit back and relax while you launch into the night sky and soar past the moon. Mars, Jupiter, Saturn — they’re the next few stops as you shuttle out of the solar system. There are 10 million stars to see.

Ball State’s Charles W. Brown Planetarium, which opened to the public in November 2014, changes the way students, astronomers and all other stargazers see the skies.

No longer are visitors confined to staring up from Earth and trying to observe the entire universe from a single vantage point. Instead, they can travel among the celestial bodies for close looks, said Ronald Kaitchuck, the planetarium’s director.

Students can see three-dimensional objects, instead of reading or hearing about them, which gives them the aha moments they need to grasp complex scientific concepts, he said.

Fans flock to facility

Ronald Kaitchuck

Ronald Kaitchuck directs the

Charles W. Brown Planetarium.

Before it even opened, the new planetarium lured interest from Indiana elementary school teachers and planetarium operators from the other side of the world, alike.

“People I don’t even know, they stop me and tell me how much they’re looking forward to this,” Kaitchuck said.

Teachers signed up for field trips months before the opening. And Ball State hosted close 200 people the last week of October for the Great Lakes Planetarium Association, which has visitors coming from as far away as Japan.

“Ball State’s got a really cool teaching tool now,” said Garry Beckstrom, president of the Great Lakes Planetarium Association. “That’s the most important thing at a college or university — who’s going to benefit. The students will benefit. Astronomy is all about the universe, which is something you cannot teach on a chalkboard.”

First step into STEM

There is also a cool factor that wins over students on science, which educators will attest is not easy.

“Talk to people in the STEM fields that we try to push so hard,” Kaitchuck said, referring to science, technology, engineering and math. “Many, many times you ask them what got them interested in the sciences, and they’ll tell you it was a visit to the planetarium.”

Dana Jerrils sees it with her third-grade class at Liberty Christian School in Anderson. She schedules a field trip to Ball State’s planetarium every year and was first to sign up for one at the new facility.

“It ignites a flame in them. It ignites an interest in them,” she said.

Attendance ready to take off

Kaitchuck expects patronage to double, if not triple, with the Brown Planetarium. An estimated 400,000 people visited its predecessor during its 47-year run, and staff members often turned away people because seats were filled. The new planetarium has 148 seats and a 52-foot-diameter dome, making it the largest in Indiana. Kaitchuck and his colleagues are looking at ways to improve programming with the new technology.

“We’re still trying to wrap our heads around what we could do that we could never vaguely consider in the past,” Kaitchuck said.