Observational Science at the Adler Planetarium

Hands-on exhibits allow immersive discoveries as ancient astronomers or modern astronauts. #science4everyone

Yesterday we had the opportunity to visit the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Illinois. A lot has changed in the twenty years since my last visit but it is still a fascinating place for both adults and children. The whole museum did an excellent job of demonstrating and encouraging observational science.

As a teacher (with ID) I received a discounted admission rate! We signed up for two shows: Cosmic Wonder and Destination Solar System. Both were presented in the Granger Sky Theater, the largest domed theater at Adler.

Cosmic Wonder used open source images from the World Wide Telescope project and the Adler's own archives to give a galactic tour of some of the amazing images collected. More than just a flip book photo journey, our guide described and explained what we were seeing.

My dad made the comment (half jokingly) that the dome was not in high definition. I also thought that there could have been a little more distinction between the observable science and the historical scientific interpretations. But the overall tone encouraged viewers to question and seek out answers for themselves, not just blindly believe one astronomer's interpretation.

They also shared the website Zooniverse where students and adults can help make sense of the massive amounts of data. This is where real scientific study happens. I could see a class of students becoming engaged in a particular project, excited to see their efforts have a positive impact on the scientific community.

The second show, Destination Solar System reminded us more of Star Tours at Disney's Hollywood Studios, without the physical movement. Led by an energetic young man with a funky hairdo, we took a fictional journey visiting planets in our solar system. Throughout the trip, I found myself wanting to yell "open the pod bay doors" to the pretentious computerized assistant.

The show was comedic at times and had enough flair and peril to entertain. I wonder if younger children may come away with some weird ideas about our solar system as fact was interwoven with futuristic fiction. Of course science fiction could also be the springboard that launches a child's career into science.

We also spent some time in the exploration lab making lunar modules. The goal was to keep a marshmallow astronaut safe in the vacuum of space and the turbulence of entering the atmosphere. This was tested through a vacuum chamber and a cement mixer.  As a teacher, I found inspiration in the room design, the open-ended nature of the activity and the excitement shared by the volunteers. If my classroom could become half as engaging, I think students would learn so much more.

Lastly, I was a bit surprised but pleased to see that the Apollo 8 Christmas broadcast played automatically at the entrance to the exhibit area. The broadcast includes the three man crew reading portions of the creation account in the book of Genesis. While the Adler Planetarium is not a Christian organization, the creation account was shared and speculations as to ancient origins were usually presented as theories.

In another section, a small prismatic display propertied to show the Big Bang. After forty seconds of watching lights dance across the tiny screen, my son said, "that's it?" With so many differing opinions in the scientific community, it appeared that the Adler Planetarium has wisely chosen to focus on the processes and history of observable science rather than the drama of speculative historical science.

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