Planetariums and Informal STEM Learning

January 1st, 2016

This Knowledge Base article was written collaboratively with contributions from Jennifer Borland and Lily Racine-Bouchard. This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


Planetaria offer opportunities for a variety of immersive learning experiences in the fields of Astronomy and Astrophysics. They typically incorporate a half-dome screen, situated directly above viewers or at an angle so that audience members are able to view the screen by looking straight ahead (as though they were laying down and looking upward at the screen).

Programming in planetaria range from “star shows” that model the night sky and provide realistic depictions of planets and other celestial bodies (including their relative motion), to narrative programs—often incorporating advanced visualizations based on scientific data —that explore a single topic or sets of topics (e.g., planets, magnetic field, black holes, etc.) in greater detail. Many visitor institutions offer hybrid programs that incorporate a “star show” as well as a more film-like presentation.  In addition to permanent planetariums, there are also portable, inflatable planetaria that have been used to provide programming in a variety of informal and formal learning settings. 

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

In 2004 the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetrium invited planetarium professionals for a workshop that explored the state of scientific visualizations for planetaria programming and strategies to further enhance the quality and dissemination of these products.

Output from this workshops suggests that use (especially repeated use) of visualizations leads to increased learning outcomes, but perhaps more importantly, the aesthetic qualities of high-quality visualizations can help to inspire and attract more individuals to the field and help to engage broad audiences in the work being funded by NASA. Workshop attendees also noted the similarities between advanced visualizations being developed for planetarium programs and popular digital games. It was hypothesized that this connection could further help to interest and engage young audiences, including those in traditionally underserved audiences.

Delivering planetarium programs can highly support classroom learning and/or stimulate new interests.Teaching a topic that, like all sciences, some children find challenging in a visual and interactive way has shown positive and productive results.

Additional use for the planetarium in terms of program delivery can include a variety of topic such as :

-Biodiversity (under water exploration, ecosystems, habitats, etc)

– Human Anatomy ( going through any or all biological systems)

-Aviation (Engineering process, flight forces, etc)

– etc. 


Brazell, B.D., Espinoza, S. (2009) Meta-analysis of Planetarium Efficacy Research. Astronomy Education Review v. 8, n. 1 (December 2009)

Hodge, T.M. & Saderholm, J.C., (2011) A New Approach to Active Learning in the Planetarium. Connecting People to Science: A National Conference on Science Education and Public Outreach. Proceedings of a conference held at Baltimore, Maryland USA 30 July – 3 August 2011. 

Plummer, J.D., et al.  (2015) “A Guide to Conducting Educational Research in the Planetarium.” Planetarian, Vol. 44, No. 2, June 2015 pages 8-24, 30. Retrieved July 2016:

Plummer, J.D. (2009). Early Elementary Students’ Development of Astronomy Concepts in the PlanetariumJournal of Research in Science Teaching, 46(2), 192-209.

Seeing the Universe – NASA Explorer Institutes’ Focus Group – Final Report (2004) Retrieved July 2016 from

Articles on Specific Topics:                       

  • Student Conceptual Learning  (Brazell & Espinoza, 2009)
  • Comparisons of learning outcomes in planetariums and other settings (Spillane, Reiff, & Sumners, 2014).