Promoting Understanding for a Lifetime Under the Stars

  • Shannon Schmoll, Ph.D.
  • Director, Abrams Planetarium
  • Department of Physics and Astronomy
  • College of Natural Science
Abrams Planetarium Logo

"I think that engaging the public with science is one of the most important jobs," said Shannon Schmoll, director of Michigan State University's Talbert and Leota Abrams Planetarium. "There are a lot of misconceptions about science—that it's something only aloof geniuses do and it's not for the average person."

Schmoll's goal is to counter those misconceptions by showing, through the programming at the planetarium, that the wonder of science—especially astronomy—is readily available to everyone. "What excites me in particular about astronomy is that it is a very democratic science," she said. "Everyone can go outside and see the same stars, the same sun, the same moon."

As an outreach unit of MSU's Department of Physics and Astronomy, the Abrams Planetarium serves as a space science resource center, supporting astronomy teaching and offering educational shows and other programming to the public. But its ability to transport audiences to far-away galaxies makes it a special venue.

"It's really about the immersive nature we can offer," Schmoll explained. "Yes, you can teach students about the planets, but why not fly them there? You can tell students that the sun's path changes in certain ways with a 2-D representation, but why not have them make those observations themselves?"

Schmoll's passion for engaging the public as lifelong learners of science stems from her background in science education; her research on applying modern learning theory to how people learn and filter new information has given her a theoretical foundation that informs her work. "Because it's filtered through the history and knowledge of an individual, everyone will learn differently and build that knowledge differently," she said. "That has informed how we try to engage people at the planetarium, that we need to engage visitors through a minds-on approach. It isn't just lecture, but getting people involved as much as we can."

Planetarium Programming and the MSU Science Festival Collaboration

Abrams Planetarium

Programming at the planetarium includes an array of theater shows for all ages, public observing nights at the MSU Observatory, the Astronomical Horizons lecture series, and the Spartan Young Astronomers Club, a new, monthly program for kids that includes hands-on activities and theater programming on a particular topic. Schmoll coordinates the club along with Renee Leone and Roxanne Truhn, organizers of the MSU Science Festival.

The planetarium has been deeply involved in the annual MSU Science Festival since it began in 2013, and will offer several events for the upcoming Festival in April, 2017. Events include sessions during the Festival's Expo Day about the total solar eclipse that will be visible in North America in August. The planetarium will also participate in the Festival's Statewide Astronomy Night (SWAN), in which planetariums and observation locations around the state of Michigan coordinate on presenting a free evening of talks, demonstrations, hands-on activities, and night sky observing. For the 2017 SWAN, the planetarium will feature a new show about dark matter called Phantom of the Universe. It is produced in part by MSU physics professor Reinhard Schwienhorst, who will do a short talk and Q & A after the show, followed by activities and public observing at the MSU Observatory.

As coordinator of the MSU Science Festival and a member of the Science Festival Alliance, Renee Leone meets organizers of other science festivals held both nationally and internationally, providing her with inspiration and ideas for new and innovative programming.

"A Statewide Astronomy Night was one idea I loved," said Leone. After researching two successful festivals in Philadelphia and North Carolina, she drew up a potential plan for the MSU Science Festival.

"Shannon and her team at Abrams Planetarium were already highly involved with the MSU Festival, and I approached her with the suggestion of launching a Statewide Astronomy Night (SWAN) as one of the Science Festival's programs," explained Leone. "We both felt it had a good chance of being well received by both Michigan's network of astronomical professionals and members of our community audience, so we began reaching out to potential presenters. Shannon has wonderful connections and was able to recruit a number of outstanding institutions for our first 2016 event."

According to Leone, Schmoll has taken the lead in communicating with potential SWAN presenters for the 2017 festival, coordinating with a number of like-minded colleagues across the state to deliver an extraordinary evening of hands-on, "minds-on" science exploration.

Mary Stewart Adams is the program director of the Headlands International Dark Sky Park in Mackinaw City. Under Adams' leadership, the park achieved the International Dark Sky designation in 2011, one of only six such parks in the U.S. (and one of only nine in the world) at that time.

"So it was right up our alley to get folks around the state engaged in an experience of the stars and the role of natural darkness in the Michigan lifestyle," said Adams.

Adams met Schmoll in 2014 at the "Astronomy at the Beach" event at Kensington Metropark. Schmoll introduced her to Renee Leone, and plans got underway for Adams' participation in MSU's Science Festival. For the upcoming Festival in April, 2017, the Headlands Dark Sky Park will be a participant in the Statewide Astronomy Night.

"In 2017, we will celebrate the grand opening of our brand new Waterfront Center and Observatory, featuring the Roger McCormick 20' PlaneWave Telescope, of which we will offer a sneak preview for Statewide Astronomy Night participants who join us at Headlands," said Adams. "We pride ourselves on providing culturally-rich educational experiences and take a humanities-based approach to the night sky that includes the arts, literature, and science of the night!"

Astronomy: Global and Intrinsically Collaborative

Ever passionate about education, Schmoll is, herself, a lifelong learner. In 2015, she participated in the first cohort of the Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassador Program (ACEAP), which gave her the opportunity to visit several National Science Foundation funded telescopes in Chile, such as the Gemini South, the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, and the Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array. While in the mountains of Chile, she also had opportunity to visit the SOAR Telescope, of which MSU is a funding partner. The experience strengthened her sense of how truly global and intrinsically collaborative is the science of astronomy.

"Science, in and of itself, is about working with others to solve problems, and the astronomy done in Chile is exemplary in that," Schmoll said. "Beyond that, we also met so many people who worked for these telescopes who had very different but equally important roles."

A take-away from the experience is a desire to communicate the various avenues available for working in the field of astronomy. "There are so many entry points into the science," she explained. "You may find astronomy fascinating, but don't want to work as a researcher or professor. Instead you can be at the telescopes, on the top of a beautiful mountain making sure they are working. That role is equally important in the furthering of human knowledge and experience. So, I try to emphasize those multiple and different career paths more often now."

Schmoll has a lot of ideas for expanding offerings at the planetarium, such as utilizing the lobby area to display new exhibits that promote self-learning, making the programming accessible by offering sensory friendly viewings of the planetarium's shows, and exploring ways in which the facility might be used as a teaching tool by other departments.

"We have done programming with a professor in biochemistry, a professor of art history, the Broad Art Museum, history, and the MSU Museum," she said. "I want to continue to explore and expand these interesting ways of using the planetarium to teach all these amazing subjects. After all, they are a part of the Universe too."

But she acknowledges that the planetarium's shows are still the perennial favorite of visitors. "Nothing beats, even now, showing everyone a beautiful night sky as the lights go down," said Schmoll. "I still get so many 'oohs and ahhs' in our shows. Most people live in cities with light pollution. They can see stars, but they don't see all of the naked eye stars, or the deep sky objects, or the Milky Way. So this is a chance for them to see what they are missing and experience that."

MSU Science Festival and Abrams Planetarium present Statewide Astronomy Night

Friday, April 7, 2017


Abrams Planetarium and MSU Observatory
755 Science Road and 4299 Pavilion Drive, East Lansing

EMU Planetarium and Sherzer Observatory
Room 402, Mark Jefferson Science Complex (the Sphere), Sherzer Observatory, Ypsilanti

Headlands International Dark Sky Park
15675 Headlands Road, Mackinaw City

Delta College Planetarium and Learning Center
100 Center Avenue, Bay City

James C. Veen Observatory
3308 Kissing Rock Avenue SE, Lowell

Kalamazoo Valley Museum
230 North Rose Street, Kalamazoo

Longway Planetarium
1310 East Kearsley Street, Flint

Shiras Planetarium
Marquette Senior High School, 1203 West Fair Avenue, Marquette

Stargate Observatory
20505 29 Mile Road, Ray Township, Macomb County

University of Michigan Angell Hall
435 State Street, Ann Arbor

University of Michigan Planetarium
1109 Geddes Avenue, Ann Arbor

  • Written by Amy Byle, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Images courtesy of Abrams Planetarium and MSU Science Festival

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