CPS Planetarium gives students glimpse of other worlds

Students enrolled in Columbia Public Schools regularly travel the night sky, explore Mars and even go on journeys through the human body, all from the comfort of their chairs.

Since it opened in 1974 as the Earth and Space Science Center, the Columbia Public Schools Planetarium at Rock Bridge High School has been an important part of the district’s science curriculum.

During yearly trips to the planetarium, students from kindergarten through fifth grade get an up-close view of the stars during programs that tie into their grade-level science curriculum.

“It’s about getting kids interested in science,” said Planetarium Director Melanie Knocke. “I think kids — everybody — are fascinated by the stars. I love watching the kids come through and listening to the kids when I turn out the lights and they see the stars for the first time.”

She presents shows three days each week and sometimes holds as many as four shows per day. Most K-5 teachers take advantage of the free science field trip. The planetarium also draws students from districts as far away as Warrensburg and Lake of the Ozarks. It’s estimated about 200,000 children have visited the planetarium.

Although each class comes just once per year, Knocke said, the trips leave an impression. She recalls telling children several years ago that they couldn’t see Pluto because it hadn’t yet been photographed. “I told them we had a craft on the way that was launched in 2006 and was going to get there in July of 2015. The kids came back in first and second grade and would ask, ‘Have we gotten to Pluto yet?’ They remembered.”

Melanie Knocke gives a presentation called Night Sky Wonders at the Rock Bridge High School Planetarium.

The planetarium, which features its original star ball, is one of only three in the state. It is the only one associated with a school. “This planetarium is amazing,” Knocke said. “It makes my job easy.”

She said the planetarium was included in the plans for Rock Bridge because supporters of the facility were “riding on the wave of the Apollo missions.”

“We had some really forward-thinking administrators and a teacher that was really driven,” she said. “We have been very fortunate to have the district continue to maintain the star ball.”

In 2012, a private donation allowed the district to purchase a new, full-dome projection system. With that addition, the district began opening the planetarium to the public on a regular basis, with free shows on the second Saturday of each month.

The planetarium also has spurred relationships with people in some of the science departments at the University of Missouri. Staff at the planetarium recently purchased a program for its projector system titled “Forces of Nature,” which focuses on volcanoes, earthquakes and tornadoes. Because Knocke didn’t have a background in those areas, she contacted MU’s geology department and asked if professors had materials that could enhance the presentation.

“We ended up doing a special event,” she said. “Alan Whittington and Eric Sandvol brought lava samples and collection devices. During that event, another professor asked if we had anything with dinosaurs in it. … That led to a dinosaur, cavemen and anthropology event.”

Today, the planetarium and the university jointly host such events at Rock Bridge High School in March and November. The subjects don’t have much to do with astronomy and the stars, Knocke said, but they are important because they get students engaged in science.

“We need to figure out a way to get kids excited and interested,” she said. “We need to encourage them to be willing to work for it, and they’ll stick with it.”