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Western Pa. school planetariums open for public programs

Shirley McMarlin
| Friday, March 18, 2016, 8:57 p.m.
Teachers Jennifer Bilott and Zak Shuster pose for a portrait in Hempfield Area High School's planetarium on Tuesday, March 8, 2016.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Teachers Jennifer Bilott and Zak Shuster pose for a portrait in Hempfield Area High School's planetarium on Tuesday, March 8, 2016.
John Smetanka, assistant physics professor and dean of academic affairs at St. Vincent College, is photographed inside the  Angelo J. Taiani Planetarium on campus on Wednesday, Mar. 9, 2016.
Evan Sanders | Tribune-Review
John Smetanka, assistant physics professor and dean of academic affairs at St. Vincent College, is photographed inside the Angelo J. Taiani Planetarium on campus on Wednesday, Mar. 9, 2016.

The sky is no longer the limit for planetarium programs.

In addition to the Buhl Planetarium at Carnegie Science Center on the North Shore, there are state-of-the-art options for everything from stargazing to navel-gazing at area schools. With public programs, visitors can explore everything from the cosmos to the surface of the Earth to the inner workings of the body and brain.

“You're only limited by your creativity,” says Brother Lawrence Machia, a member of the St. Vincent Archabbey monastic community, who develops programs for St. Vincent's Angelo J. Taiani Planetarium. “When you're projecting constellations, you're only scratching the surface of what (the system) is capable of doing.”

For the 2016 Steeler training camp, Machia is working on ideas for a show illustrating the team's history and also getting viewers up close and personal with the players.

The St. Vincent planetarium, which uses a Spitz SciDome projection system, is in the atrium of the Sis and Herman Dupré Science Building on the Unity campus and opened in the fall of 2010.

“The planetarium was designed with the public in mind,” says John Smetanka, academic dean and assistant professor, who oversees the facility. “The idea was for the public to see it as they approach the building.”

Campus clubs have employed the planetarium for movie nights under the stars, Smetanka says. Machia has developed a presentation called “Eyes of Faith” for the Archabbey, which he describes as “looking at the stars from a faith-affirming perspective.”

The St. Vincent planetarium, which seats about 40 people, will offer free spring sky shows, along with a second feature the third Saturday of March, April and May.

North Hills High School converted its planetarium to a digital immersion theater with a 24-foot dome last year, which allows for more than just star-gazing. It hosts about three community programs a month from September through April.

The theater has 40 movable seats and is a teaching tool for all subjects.

“When you're sitting in there, it's like you're actually standing in the field in the sky,” student Heather Campbell said when the facility opened last year.

At Hempfield Area High School, several free programs are offered to the public during the school year, says science teacher Zak Shuster, who manages the planetarium with astronomy and geology teacher Jennifer Billot.

In “Planets — A Journey Through Our Solar System,” planned for March 22, Billot says, “we'll start on Earth, fly to all the planets and some moons, and learn exciting things.”

Audience favorites at Hempfield Area include programs on the Zodiac, the night sky during different seasons, eclipses and the planets.

“We like to do shows tied in to what's happening in the cosmos at the time,” Billot says.

The Hempfield planetarium, which seats 40, was built in 1965. It was remodeled and relocated to the third floor among the science classrooms in the late 1980s, Billot says. “It was built during the space race, when the U.S. was competing with the Soviet Union and there was a big interest in space.”

Its digital Skyscan system is the same system used by the Carnegie Science Center's Buhl Planetarium, Billot says.

At its simplest, a planetarium show will use “a traditional projector with an arc lamp (like a lightbulb) that shines light through a metal ball with holes drilled in to match the star pattern in the sky,” which is projected onto the planetarium's domed viewing surface, says Jason Brandt, who manages the Greater Latrobe High School planetarium and teaches astronomy and science.

At present, programs in the Latrobe planetarium are on hiatus while Brandt is on a spring semester sabbatical.

Despite the popular entertainment factor, the main purpose of the facilities is student education.

“Math classes can look at fractal patterns. Anthropology students can go to different historical sites and look at them from an astrological perspective, places like Stonehenge, Australia and sites in South America, and see how ancient peoples told time,” says St. Vincent's Smetanka.

“Philosophy classes study myths of origin through the constellations and the way the Greeks and Romans used the sky to illustrate their legends.”

Billot says the Hempfield facility is used by a variety of classes.

“Astronomy students visit to study the skies, geology students explore minerals, chemistry students “fly into molecules,” Billot says.

Health students immerse themselves in 3-D models of the body systems and the brain and even take a lesson on meditation and relaxation. English students familiarize themselves with the constellations as part of their study of Greek mythology.

At North Hills, a biology lesson could include a simulation of cell activity projected onto the dome, making students feel as though they're inside the cell. Art students can get an up-close view of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel. Foreign language classes could take a virtual tour down a street in Spain or Germany, listening to natives chat.

“This is an exciting time in astronomy,” Shuster says. “With all the available technology, new planets are being discovered every day.”

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750 or

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