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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Eyes to the skies: Students meet planets

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Billy Hix uses a laser pointer to indicate a star on the planetarium. The star projection, not surprisingly, doesn't show up in a flash photo.
(T-G Photo by John I. Carney)
Local educator Billy Hix was working with the U.S. Air Force on some science and technology education programming when he found out about a portable planetarium, owned by the Air Force but not used very often.

Hix, whose passion is sharing his love of space and astronomy, knew what he had to do.

Personal mission

He "jumped through a lot of hoops" to get permission to begin using the Air Force's portable planetarium himself, and had it at Southside Elementary on Friday to present programs to third, fourth and fifth graders. Hix will take the planetarium to Eakin Elementary later this week.

The igloo-shaped planetarium, which inflates much like those children's bouncy houses seen at fairs and festivals, comes with a curved mirror which allows a standard computer projector to display star maps (or anything else) on the inside of the dome. Hix likes it so well he'd like to be able to buy one that he can keep permanently.

Hix's day job is with Motlow State Community College, where he teaches computer science, but he uses his free time working with organizations like NASA and the National Space Foundation on space and science education, finding ways to help teachers develop kids' love of science.

Experts say that America must encourage more of its children to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) degrees and careers if the country is to remain competitive and the world leader in innovation.

Amazing astronomy

Artwork helps children understand what the constellations and their mythology are meant to represent.
(T-G Photo by John I. Carney)
The planetarium is a great tool for making that happen. The first class of fifth graders to visit on Friday reacted with "oohs" and "aahs" as Hix showed them various astronomical features, talking both about the science behind the stars and planets and about the culture and history which led to their names and to the constellations, groups of stars which, when seen in the night sky, are thought to suggest the shapes of various people and animals.

Hix showed the fifth graders Io, one of Jupiter's moons, and showed how its closeness to the giant planet has caused it to have more volcanoes than every other planet and moon in the solar system put together. He compared the volcanoes to an outbreak of zits, eliciting the expected "ewww" from the students.

Teachers watch, too

The planetarium holds about 25 kids at a time, sitting on the floor. A chair is brought inside for the teacher. Hix said he always insists that the teacher view the presentation, and tells of a school he visited recently where a student correctly stated that there was ice on the moon, only to be contradicted by a teacher whose knowledge was based on older references.

Hix leaves a packet of information and followup activities with each teacher after the class views his planetarium presentation.