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Science Made Fun at the Planetarium

By Olivia Overman, Contributing Writer

planetarium 1Safety warning: you are now entering a very cool place of fun and learning! While the signs may not exactly say this at the Irene V. Hylton Planetarium, it is certainly something that could be said about Prince William County’s only planetarium. Located at C.D. Hylton Senior High School on Spriggs Road, the planetarium was first opened in 1991. It is used by schools to enhance students’ interest in astronomy and to teach them how to locate things that are visible in the night sky. But even more exciting is the fact that it is also open to the public throughout the year. Whether it be a birthday party, an anniversary, a scout troop get together or just a fun evening out, the planetarium offers both entertainment and education all wrapped into one.

“Prince William County has 98 schools, and all 98 schools come and visit me,” said Anthony Kilgore, planetarium director. “High schools, elementary, [and] middle schools, typically third grade, fourth grade, sixth grade, and ninth grade because there are Standards of Learning that are attached to astronomy [for them]. For them, the planetarium is not even considered a field trip, it’s an extension of the classroom.

“I tell the students it would be very tricky to take a field trip to outer space, so what I do here is to simulate it. That’s how I view myself as an extension of the classroom.”

Back in 1991 the planetarium was called the Skydome Planetarium and contained an outdated Spitz 512 ATM 3 star projector. So when Kilgore took the position as director of the planetarium in 2008 he knew the technology had to be updated if it was to succeed in its primary effort to bring science to life for children without boring them with outdated teaching tools. By updating the technology, Kilgore knew that he could then interest more members of the public to visit the planetarium and, thus, bring in some much needed funding. The solution was the Hylton Family Foundation—“Jason Calhoun, science supervisor for Prince William County Schools and Carolyn Custard, former principal of Hylton Senior High, worked with me and all three of us were able to work together to get the grant from the Hylton Foundation to be able to upgrade our facility.”

With a grant of $250,000, the outdated optical mechanical star projector was removed and replaced with the new digital Media Globe 2. “Bad technology, nobody comes,” said Kilgore. “I made more money in ticket sales the first year [with new technology] than the [planetarium did] eight years before.”

So what exactly do you get to see at the planetarium? “I try to explain to people what we do here, but you have to see it to understand,” said Kilgore. First and foremost the children in Prince William County schools learn about the stars, planets and constellations, the moon, the sun, along with other objects in the sky. Although the planetarium is located at Hylton Senior High School, the facility serves as a field trip experience for surrounding school districts as well. “Fairfax County schools, Stafford and Fauquier County schools come. It only costs $25 to run a school bus [here],” said Kilgore.

photo by Aleda Powell
photo by Aleda Powell

Kilgore purchases different programs from different companies that he believes are both educational and fun for the different grades. For example, “animated shows that can be compared to movies are great for third and fourth graders, while full dome shows are great for adults, said Kilgore. “We even have a show that we do that’s pretty cool, where we go under water, called The Enchanted Reef. I normally do that with third graders and I tell them the entire dome is protecting us and when the shark comes and busts through the glass, there are shrieks of terror.”

A third grade teacher at Old Bridge Elementary, Allison Cresap has been bringing the children to the Hylton Planetarium for the past six years. “It is our favorite and best field trip,” she said. Speaking on behalf of the third grade teachers at Old Bridge, she said, “We value this field trip because Mr. Kilgore brings science to life and inspires our students to think about and be curious about science. Another reason we value this experience is because the program aligns with our curriculum in a fun, exciting way. Students leave the planetarium with a clear understanding of the earth, moon, and sun cycles.” Cresap continued to say that the students make comments such as they are “learning so much” or “I didn’t know that” or “now I get it.” Cresap will continue to take her third graders on the annual trip to the planetarium because of the “wonderful, educational experience Mr. Kilgore creates for us.”

The planetarium does not receive federal funding so Kilgore does his best to bring in money for the facility by putting on public shows. The price for each one-hour show is just $10. “The same show that they are showing at the Einstein Planetarium in D.C. is [up to] $23,” he said. Public shows are usually scheduled for the months of February, April, October and December. With seating for 65 people, the planetarium can make $650 per show if fully sold out.

Demonstrating some of the aspects of the new digital technology, Kilgore first set it up so that it starts at 9 p.m. with a view of the sky from the parking lot of the high school. “I can take it a step further and put you in the parking lot,” he said. “With this digital system, I can highlight the lines, put the name on it [the star]… I can leave the mile markers on the dome. With the sky, I can  bring everybody [the stars] up. Any constellation in the night sky I can talk about and, again, I can bring everybody to light.”

Laser Shows

Part of the recent renovation included the addition of a SkyLase laser projection system. While describing the Media Globe 2 as the heart of the planetarium, Kilgore describes the SkyLase laser system as the soul.

Shows can include both a talk about the stars as well as a laser show. “Over the Christmas holiday period, 300 people showed up, with some showing up at 6 p.m. for the 9 p.m. show. The more shows I can do, the more I can offer the students during the day,” said Kilgore.

The planetarium is also open for private events such as birthday parties, anniversaries, wedding proposals—“anything anyone can dream up,” said Kilgore. The laser shows are mostly non- educational but in some instances Kilgore will talk to kids about how lasers work for five or 10 minutes and then proceed with the laser show. In other instances, people have provided a disk with pictures of the birthday person and these are displayed throughout the laser show.

“I’ll come in on my time but you have to have a minimum of 30 for a private show, or $300, because I’m coming in trying to raise money for the planetarium. I put the shows on, I’m the janitor and the bookkeeper here,” he said.

Last year the holiday show had snow (made from soap) fall during the laser show, while the Halloween Fright Light shows had fake lighting cauldrons and, of course, scary music. The planetarium is currently putting on the April laser shows, which could include anything from country music laser night, a Metallica laser night, and a very current show called iPop that includes music from Selena Gomez, Katy Perry, Michael Jackson and others. (Visit http://hylton.schools.pwcs.edu for showtimes and dates.)

“Laser shows are the most popular, really,” Kilgore said. “All I have to do is put it in the paper and there is a line out the door. For the holiday show, I had over 300 people show up; I only seat 65 and I do three shows a night.”

All types of people show up for the public shows. Of course, it depends on the show itself. “For the Halloween shows it’s mostly fathers and sons, for the Christmas shows, it is mostly a family event, while country music night sees lots of cowboy hat-wearing guys and girls in shorts,” explained Kilgore. “Metallica night will see people wearing Goth clothing with black pants and chains.”

The Brooks family is one of many families in the area that regularly attends laser shows at the planetarium. Based in Woodbridge, Rainy Brooks was amazed when her eldest son came home from his third grade field trip raving about this awesome light show he just saw at a planetarium. She thought he had gone to the museum in D.C. Unbeknownst to her, the planetarium was right at her back door.

“Growing up in San Diego, Calif., I can remember going to the Ruben H. Fleet Science Center and watching Pink Floyd laser light shows with my friends…so you can imagine my delight when I found out that Mr. Kilgore does those very same laser  light shows, and many more, at the Hylton Planetarium,” Brooks said. “Not even the Air and Space planetarium offers that.” She described being “wowed” this past year with the Halloween Fright Lights laser light show. The Holiday Lights show was fantastic  too, she said.

Brooks continued to describe how her children “really enjoy getting to ‘see the music’ in the vivid color, and energetic animation of these laser light shows. It really gets their imagination going, and it inspired some pretty cool artwork from the kids once they had ‘seen music’ in a different medium. They still haven’t stopped talking about it, and can’t wait to go back with their friends.

“People don’t realize how lucky they are to have such a fantastic venue in their own backyard, and for less than the price of going to a movie at the theater,” she said.

The Future is Bright

To increase efficiency and to ease ticket purchases, advance payment by PayPal is being considered. “Right now we’ve never had this volume,” said Kilgore, so installing a way to buy tickets online would certainly be a step up from the current cash only at the door method.

After that, the next big idea is to upgrade the planetarium seats.

The seats are the original seats from 1991. “I want to get the seats that are interactive where I can rumble you a little bit or where they have buttons on the armrest where I can say to the kids like ‘how many of you think it’s this?’ and I’ll have instant results to know where we are at,” said Kilgore. “We need to get the planetarium into the 21st century and we’re getting there.”

While still discussing the idea with the Prince William County school system, Kilgore thinks it would be a great idea to ask 65 people or businesses to buy one seat rather than one person to buy 65 seats.

It was plain to see the time, love and dedication Kilgore puts into the planetarium. The astronomy teacher and planetarium director is bringing the sky to life and making science fun with the one hope that kids will walk out of the facility saying ‘I want to take more science classes.’

A graduate of American Universitys School of Communication, Olivia Overman has written articles for a number of online and print publications. She lives with her husband and son in Woodbridge. Overman can be reached by email at oove[email protected]cewilliamliving.com.

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