A Gift for Teachers, Students and Ethiopia

Late last year the National Museum of Ethiopia received a portable digital planetarium capable of showing full dome movies. Houston Public Radio’s Rod Rice reports that the planetarium and its programs were developed at Rice University and the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

More specifically, the planetarium, called Discovery Dome, and the programs for it are the wards of
Rice physicist and astronomer Patricia Reiff and the museum’s Vice President for Astronomy, Carolyn Sumners.

Reiff says the first Discovery Dome was made in 1998. She say’s it’s an immersive theater, which is really more than a planetarium.
“When someone says “planetarium” you think “stars.” Immersive theater means now you have a movie that’s not just a big widescreen like an IMAX, but it goes all the way around you, above you, behind you, as well as in front. So, you teach by flying people through things.”

Teaching is at the root of this partnership between Reiff and Sumners. They’ve worked together on many projects over the years.

Reiff says they first met on a trip to Canada in 1979 to see a total solar eclipse.

“We got to talking in ’79 about how the teachers in Houston really needed more resources. That many of them were teaching course that they really didn’t feel prepared to teach. She and I started brainstorming about how she and I at the Museum and at Rice could team together to bring more content to teachers, to give them better professional credentials, to give them more confidence, and we have been working on projects ever since to get the word out about science.”

Carolyn Sumners says younger children learn best by seeing. So teaching them about things they can’t see is problematic. That’s how Discovery Dome came about.

“We’re able to take them out into space to watch how the moon and the sun and the earth behave, or take them to the Serengeti or take them to Ethiopia, wherever they need to go. So, they observe change directly. When we completely surround you it’s exactly what you would see if you were there.”

There is a Discovery Dome that travels to schools all the time and a second is about to travel constantly too. There are 17 different shows for teachers to select, plus a new one called “Lucy’s Cradle: Birth of Wonder.”

Lucy, of course is the world’s most famous fossil, and the star of an exhibit about Ethiopia at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

“The museum has been negotiating with Ethiopia for years to bring the Lucy’s Legacy exhibit and we thought what a perfect thing to do to create a program in the big planetarium that would explain what’s so significant about the bones of Lucy. We have a collaborative agreement with the University of Houston to actually contribute to that Lucy’s Cradle show about how special Earth is as the origin of life. And we were able to open a program that really does explain the significance of Lucy in the grand scale of human evolution.”

That being done it was decided that a Discovery Dome and the Lucy’s Cradle program would be given as a gift to Ethiopia. It’s only the fourth digital planetarium in Africa.