Learner Agency in Planetarium Settings: Q&A with Kaylan Brae Petrie

October 4th, 2015

Kaylan Brae Petrie has worked in planetariums for over five years at Pacific Science Center and currently at the Palouse Discovery Science Center in Pullman, Washington. Her planetarium experience ranges from work with PowerDome, Skypost, Uniview, Stellarium, World Wide Telescope, Zeiss Spacegate digital star projectors, and analog Spitz star projectors. For her M.A. in Museology at University of Washington, she studied early learning in preschool planetarium programs. She currently balances work as a planetarium presenter, university instructor, and Ph.D. student at Washington State University Department of Teaching & Learning. Her research interests center on how STEM learning in informal learning environments and settings, such as planetariums, can enhance public understanding of science, and how to inspire girls to pursue STEM in higher education. You can reach Kaylan by email, kaylan.petrie@wsu.edu

What is your background? How did you become interested in planetaria and informal science education? Tell us more about your work.

I came to planetariums in a very roundabout way. I’ve been interested in our solar system since elementary school, but ended up pursuing biology in college and worked as curatorial assistant at the Museum of Science in Boston after graduating. Part of my job at the Museum of Science was to help take care of the museum’s collection, including the Hayden Planetarium’s collection of slides, scripts, and marketing materials from the past several decades. During the Hayden Planetarium’s upgrade in 2009-2010, many of their materials needed to be archived or deaccessioned from the museum, and that job fell to me. In the process of sorting through these materials I became extremely interested in planetarium education and how powerful a tool it is in translating complex topics in physics and astronomy to non-experts. As part of this new found obsession with astronomy, I read as much as I could about Earth and Space Science, attended lectures, watched educational films, and of course visited the planetarium during my lunch breaks.

I was hired at Pacific Science Center’s (PSC) Willard Smith Planetarium in 2010 and embarked on a three-year stint as a planetarium presenter. PSC’s planetarium has always been committed to doing live programs rather than pre-recorded movie style shows, and that philosophy very deeply and positively impacted me as an educator. I’ve been at the Washington State University Planetarium and Palouse Discovery Science Center planetariums for the last 2 years, and I am focusing my science education doctoral dissertation on this learning venue.

For our readers, could you explain learner agency and the connection to learning through inquiry?

When learners are able to freely choose topics that are interesting to them, in science or not, they are more likely to be invested in that learning and continue to explore beyond the confines of the classroom, museum, planetarium, or whatever environment they’re in. Inquiry is intimately tied with one’s identity as a learner, so having the freedom to pursue their interests over a short or long timespan makes them a stakeholder in their learning, or gives them agency. Feeling that ownership over learning often leads to sharing ideas and opening a social discourse with others, and gives the learner a voice.

In what ways have planetariums created an atmosphere that has fostered learners’ agency? (Please give some examples.)

A benefit of planetariums is that you can start on some basic level with everyone regardless of their age, literacy, geographic location, socioeconomic status, race, gender, etc. By this I mean that everyone has experienced daytime and nighttime, and has observed in one way or another our sun, moon, and stars. These experiences needn’t necessarily be visual; songs, stories, feeling the warmth of the sun, hearing the animals that are active at nighttime – these are all ways that we experience our place in the universe and give us all a sense of global ownership or connectedness to the cosmos in a way that other disciplines may not.

Planetariums have a unique ability to tap into this ownership and have folks consider their relationship to our planet, solar system, galaxy, and so on. We are star stuff, after all! Another way planetariums can tap into learner’s agency, particularly with schoolchildren, is to collaborate with teachers prior to and after planetarium field trips. The software that many planetariums use is available to download for free, which means that students and teachers can be planetarium presenters too, and enter the museum or planetarium with a stronger foundation from which they can ask questions or interact with the informal science educator.

When developing an atmosphere conducive to inquiry and agency, what are different ways or methods planetariums can adopt to increase learners’ agency?

This is where doing live programming really comes in handy. Being able to informally and frequently assess an audience lets you find out what they know, what they want to know, what they think they know, and what they don’t know they want to know. Critical listening skills and creating a comfortable and safe environment are key in developing this atmosphere that’s conducive to inquiry and increased agency.

We are continually learning through new discoveries in science in general, and space exploration in particular. How have planetariums kept abreast of, and have addressed current issues in science?

Part of the strength of live-presentation style planetaria is that they are able to initiate a conversation with their audiences about current events. Many planetarium software programs have the ability to quickly and easily update graphics, and some even connect to regularly updated databases. This isn’t as easy to do with a pre-recorded movie type of planetarium show, but can still be supplemented with an educator in the planetarium. For example, when we first received pictures of Pluto from New Horizons, we could update our planetarium shows every day with new images that NASA had released. With the recent discovery of water on Mars, planetarium educators can focus their conversations on the conditions which must exist for this to be so, and show where water was found on the planet.

It is incumbent upon the planetarium staff to stay abreast of current issues in science, but fortunately that becomes easier and easier with the increasing popularity of things like New Horizons, Curiosity, “Supermoons” and even science fiction; Twitter, Facebook and other media have done a service in helping folks become interested in and connected to science. With that being said, though, there are still a lot of misconceptions that are perpetuated by the media.

How have planetariums offered an atmosphere where learners can inquire about current issues that interest them?

Some planetariums have blogs, twitter accounts, regularly updated web pages, and suggestion boxes. Our science center here in Eastern Washington is quite small, and many people in the community will often call or email us with their inquiries. Thankfully, we also have an active Astronomical Society in our region, of which I am a member. I frequently poll my peers for questions their friends and family have recently asked them (as a local “expert”), and will often use these inquiries to guide the planetarium programs I write. Also, in all of my planetarium shows I always let folks know at the beginning and end of the program that I want to answer their questions, whether or not they pertain to the content of the program. Politely interrupting me during shows is also encouraged. What works best though, is treating the show as a conversation, and often letting the learners lead the presenter astray to meet their needs.

Within planetariums some experiences are focused on a script or a show, while other experiences might be interactive for the audience. What challenges do educators and content developers face when creating a planetarium experience, and creating an atmosphere of inquiry? Another challenge planetariums may face is not having many objects for hands-on learning experiences. Could you share with us different ways planetariums have made, or can make learning experiential?

I think one of the biggest challenges is striking a balance between didactic and interactive, because both styles work for different learners, and can even work for the same individual.

One of the great things about astronomy is that it really lends itself well to modeling. This is one of the crosscutting concepts in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and is an important part of science education altogether. Some things I’ve done that have been memorable for learners, as well as being hands-on, have been using scale models to show the size ratio and distance between the moon and earth, made a comet with the same/similar materials you find in real comets, used wine glasses to show lensing (related to gravitational lensing with black holes), assembling a paper planisphere, and passed around a real meteorite. Some of these activities get people up and moving in the planetarium, others are more passive, but all are hands-on (yes I let folks touch the comet!), memorable, and reinforcing of the concepts we are discussing. The Astronomical Society of the Pacific has some really tremendous kinesthetic astronomy activities that work nicely in planetariums as well as in classrooms or outreach events.

What are some characteristics of planetariums that make them distinctive from other informal learning experiences? What are some planetarium programs that you consider to be exemplary, what makes them stand out to you?

I’ve been to a lot of planetarium shows around the country, and each space is unique in its offerings, technology, staff, and content. I’d say that the thing that they all have in common is their ability to visually immerse the learner in the environment. With the lights down and a visually rich image extending into your peripheral vision, it’s easy to feel like you are really outside or in space. I think this immersion primes the learner’s mind for inquiry in a different way than a manipulative exhibit component might. Another characteristic of planetariums is that, depending on the program, learners often have the ability to take what they learn in the informal learning environment and try it on their own. They can look at the moon and stars after learning about them in a planetarium; they can read about black holes, listen to podcasts about astronomy, follow NASA on Twitter, and so on.

For me the thing that really makes some planetarium programs stand out from others boils down to who is presenting the information and guiding the learning experience. I’ll admit I have fallen asleep in planetariums, and have had lots of folks fall asleep in mine. But a good educator who is engaging, encouraging, lively, interpretive, and skilled at reading the audience makes a really big difference. This isn’t something I’ve seen a lot in larger, theater style planetariums, but I strongly believe it is possible and should be pursued. Do people learn from watching movie-style presentations in planetariums? Yes, absolutely! Research shows that both styles are conducive to learning, but I really have to say that live presentations truly make the experience richer for me, and more memorable and inspiring.

What advice or insights do you have for informal STEM educators developing planetarium projects?

One piece of advice I have is to collaborate as much as possible with the local school districts to help support their curriculum. Some teachers I’ve interviewed shy away from teaching physics and astronomy because they find the topics to be more complicated, difficult to teach, or intimidating because of the math involved or abstract concepts. Finding out how to support these classroom educators can only help students learn. Working with teachers will also help district administrators see the value in taking field trips to planetariums or inviting portable planetariums into their schools. The last piece of advice I would give is to allow the individuals presenting the programs to be involved in developing the program outline, content, software programming, and other related tasks so that they have ownership over their teaching as well. The presenter/educator is a learner too, and a strengthened sense of agency improves morale, commitment, and enjoyment of sharing the wonders of the universe with others.