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From Dome to Home: The Maynard Jordan Planetarium

How One Planetarium Leverages Slooh for Increased Visitor Engagement

"Turn down the lights and turn on the stars"

Shawn Laatsch
Shawn Laatsch

Those were the words that kickstarted Shawn Laatschs 40-year planetarium career.

From that first interaction in high school and continuing through college, Shawn worked in domes that translated the cosmos into an experience. With cinematic effects, audiences are sent tumbling through galaxies, arching around planets, and swirling around stars. "I'm a storyteller," Shawn remarked, "I love to share".

Shawn’s Journey With The Maynard Jordan Planetarium

Having worked in the planetarium field progressing from educator to director, Shawn has seen huge changes in the technology reshaping the way astronomy is communicated to the public. Slide projectors and reel-to-reel tapes gave way to digital systems that now combine crystal clear space images with mind-bending special effects to weave together transportive stories through the universe.

Inside the Maynard Jordan Planetarium
Inside the Maynard Jordan Planetarium

At the Maynard Jordan Planetarium associated with the University of Maine, Shawn can be found giving live shows, fixing holes in the ceiling, and giving online Star Parties. Students on class trips and families looking for entertainment pile into the planetarium's 10-meter dome, the largest in the state.

The Current State of the Planetarium Industry

Overall, the planetarium industry is booming. 142 million people visited a planetarium in 2020, a huge number compared to the documentary giant screen industry which attracts 36 million people per year.

Studies show that the US public remains invested in astronomy and space exploration and planetariums are capitalizing on this innate curiosity. With new data visualization techniques, augmented reality, and enhanced imaging technologies, the next 20 years for planetariums are projected to experience a boom in popularity.

‘It’s not just about the technology’ states Staffan Klashed a prominent planetarium CEO, ‘supported by multiplatform software solutions, planetariums will gradually start to roll out programs and extend their relationships with their visitors’. This will create new business opportunities, injecting more resources into the industry. ‘The planetarium becomes the magnet, the central point of gravity around which a vast number of satellite programs are orbiting’ said Klashed, ‘experiential hubs for astronomy and space exploration first, buildings second – and that’s an incredibly strong position to use to increase attendance to the building itself.’

The Challenges Planetariums Face

Engaging audience members once they leave the dome, is a challenge for planetariums, but one that Shawn was well ahead of the curve on. "I became aware of Slooh in 2020," said Shawn, "and we formed a partnership when I got to the planetarium." Distributing Slooh accounts helps Shawn keep the planetarium running. With a designated Workspace for members to join and a regular live Star Party schedule, students and members of the public are encouraged to participate in learning beyond the classroom and the dome.

The Maynard Jordan Planetariums Online Star Party with a Live View of a Globular Star Cluster
The Maynard Jordan Planetariums Online Star Party with a Live View of a Globular Star Cluster

The Maynard Jordan Planetarium additionally weaves links between local culture and live views of the stars to reinforce connections to what students learn. Establishing personal connections to the subject matter is the newest development in the education sector and one that education technology companies like Slooh encourage. Inside the Slooh interface, students explore a multitude of science concepts whilst adding their personal insights to the images and data they have gathered. With space stories to explore, and in-depth guides bursting with cultural and historical information, students and educators are encouraged to bring the laws of Physics back down to Earth.

The Power of Experience in the Post-COVID World

Shawn places emphasis on the power of informal learning. ‘In answer to those who say well, why not just learn all of this from a textbook, I always say you can, but it's not likely." He went on to explain, "you look at the astronauts, the scientists the astronomers, none of them were inspired to pursue that career because of what they learned in a physics book." Informal learning, those moments when you step into a planetarium like Shawn, meet a hero or watch a captivating nature documentary are experiences that shape career decisions. Leveraging students' natural curiosity is the key to downstream recruiting, one that both planetariums and Slooh define as a driving factor.

The Awe-inspiring Experience of Capturing the Andromeda Galaxy that can Inspire the Next Generation Taken by a Slooh Member
The Awe-inspiring Experience of Capturing the Andromeda Galaxy that can Inspire the Next Generation Taken by a Slooh Member

The Slooh Tools Helping Planetariums Thrive

Slooh offers planetariums a complementary set of tools to bridge the gap between the dome and home. The need for such virtual resources was emphasized by the pandemic. Live star parties served as a vital resource during the pandemic when the Planetarium closed down. Indeed, one survey shows that 89% of planetariums ran virtual programs during the pandemic with 65% of these programs being live virtual public shows and lectures. However, as planetariums begin to open their doors again, live star parties aren’t going away soon, especially as education is becoming increasingly digitized.

When asked what he thinks of the shift toward online education technology, Shawn replied "I don't like online, kids spend too much time in front of screens, but Slooh is the exception." Slooh "complements what we're doing, for students to see the sheer beauty of the images as they come in live and watch the image develop is amazing."

Comet Neowise Captured by the Planetarium on Slooh Telescopes
Comet Neowise Captured by the Planetarium on Slooh

"The Quests are a great tool too," said Shawn "they make kids think outside the box and develop problem-solving skills when they need to rebook a mission because one of the telescopes is clouded out". Having hosted a number of public events Shawn also noted that the Star Parties are “great for networking and helping develop a global perspective”.

With new telescopes being launched like the James Webb Telescope, and space exploration at an all-time high, it’s no wonder public interest in space and astronomy is increasing. Planetariums represent new dimensions for public engagement both in person and virtually.


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