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Exploring galaxies during a pandemic; how WVU Planetarium got creative during a pivot to virtual delivery


Normally when you visit the WVU Planetarium and Observatory, you take your seat and wondrously peer up at the dome with anticipation; the lights dim, and the dome lights up.

A woman gives a presentation in the planetarium auditorium.
The WVU Planetarium and Observatory show pre-2020

Normalcy was paused in March of 2020 due to a global pandemic but that created an opportunity for the WVU Planetarium director and staff of graduate students to get creative with their mission.  Their last in person show was March 13, 2020 and since then, they have been reaching new audiences virtually, offering a wide array of shows from elementary level to expert astronomer level.  Their mission is to serve the state-wide West Virginia community by connecting people to the universe, and their resilience through a pandemic has been unwavering.

Jessica Evans and the Jack o Lantern Sun The WVU Planetarium's Halloween show featuring Jessica Sydnor presenting the Jack-O-Lantern Sun

Once all activities were moved virtually in April 2020, WVU graduate students, Jessica Sydnor  from Poquoson, VA and Evan Lewis from Freehold, NJ, began to brainstorm with director Dr. Kathryn Williamson, on how to proceed through a virtual delivery.  Their collective creativity began to shine with shows like “Legends of the Night Sky: Perseus and Andromeda”, “Storytime with an Astronomer; Learning all about Katherine Johnson”, “Supervolcanoes”, “Climate Change from a Planetary Perspective”, “Radio Telescopes”, “Mapping the Milky Way”, “Galaxies and Nebulae” and a virtual tour of the Planetarium and Observatory.  Virtual shows often offered a hands-on activity to go with the theme, an art project, or a special guest speaker.  

During challenging times, Jessica and Evan, who are both second year graduate students in WVU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, mastered the art of reaching their audiences virtually.  All shows included a video feature, commentary and time for questions from the audience.  Challenges that come with going virtual became evident.  Evan explains “in person, the catalog of shows are already made for us including demos, movies and resources, and after we learn it, we give it.” But things are quite different virtually.  In order to adapt, they had to design every show from scratch since they didn’t have full dome resources.  Evan and Jessica had to redesign every show for a flat screen as opposed to a dome format. That didn’t stop them, and their persistence paid off.

Looking back on the shows of 2020, Evan said his favorites were the mythology shows geared towards kids.  “A few shows were adapted from movies that aren’t usually shown in the planetarium,” Evan said.  He said his favorites were ”Legends of the night sky, mythology for kids, Orion and Andromeda.”  He was tasked with coming up with short and fun introductions to the videos, which the kids loved.

Evan Lewis hosting a show

Evan Lewis during a Planetarium show

A few shows also featured college ambassadors from WV SPOT (West Virginia Science Public Outreach Team).  WV SPOT recruits and trains WV undergraduates to bring presentations about science, technology, and engineering to WV classrooms, museums and youth programs.  WV SPOT ambassadors delivered shows like “Journey to Mars” and “International Space Station”.  Along with WV SPOT presenters, students and faculty from the Center for Gravitational Waves and Cosmology were guest speakers delivering shows, including, “Radio Telescopes with Joseph Kania”, “Multimessenger Astronomy with Caitlin Witt” and “Fast Radio Bursts with Duncan Lorimer.”

The international space station presentation showing astronauts in space

The International Space Station show presented by a WV SPOT Ambassador

The Planetarium’s director, Dr. Kathryn Williamson, also got in on the action, leading one of the most beloved shows of the year, “Astronomy Yoga,” with inspiration from Morgantown Power Yoga.  Using concepts of astronomy to move the body through yoga poses merged creativity, physical activity and astronomy together in a fun way.  One participant commented “I really enjoyed your Astronomy Yoga.  It was a great way to have the whole family participate in a fun activity and to be socially distanced at the same time!  I saw some familiar faces having fun so it really helped me to not feel so isolated. When can we do this again?”

Jessica’s favorite show to do was the Halloween Special.  “It’s my favorite holiday anyways, and I dressed up and encouraged everyone to dress up” Jessica said. She even thought about ways to connect Halloween to astronomy.  “We chatted about things in space that look spooky like the black widow nebula and Jack-o-lantern sun,” Jessica said looking back at the show.



“We chatted about things in space that look spooky like the black widow nebula and Jack-o-lantern sun,”Jessica Sydnor

Jessica also led the effort to survey participants afterwards, gathering key demographic information along with feedback.  This strategy assisted their planning efforts by better understanding their audiences and creating content that would reach more people. This paid off with a large, now international audience for the Planetarium. The virtual nature allowed them to interact with participants from Argentina, India, and different parts of Europe.  One show even attracted the attention of the United Kingdom Amateur Astronomy Club, which also attended a show alongside the other participants.  Further, through the powers of social media, email lists and word-of-mouth, their reputation for delivering exciting virtual shows was amplified. 

With shows in house, capacity would normally be limited to 60 but with shows moving virtually, combined with a creative approach, they were able to reach new audiences.  During the pandemic months of 2020, the Planetarium offered 40 shows with over 742 participants from all over the world. 

Participants had exuberant feedback with most wanting more content.  Here are a few quotes from past participants:

This was my first experience and I thought it was a tremendous program. I would only ask that you keep on doing what you're doing . The presenter was excellent. He was able to establish in this 87 year old man a desire to know more about astronomy.

No advice .... you are doing an excellent job and providing a wonderful service. I do hope the virtual experiences will continue EVEN after the end of the pandemic and things return to normal.

At 78, I’m just interested in learning. I’ve never attended any presentation that I didn’t learn something; thus, anything you share will be appreciated. Last night I learned a lot!

We live in Washington State but visited WVU two summers ago with 2 of WVU’s best professors. The virtual shows allow us to feel connected to space, family, and WVU.

I loved the sort of "different" show, being a yoga experience. This sort of thing helped us be engaged since it was not just a "sit and watch" experience like so many interactions are these days online.

This was the first time and my 8 year old daughter loved it. She was so excited and can't wait to do the next family friendly one. The presenters were very personable and had a great energy.

They know their subjects and present them professionally and at a level that can be understood by the layman, youngsters and those with scientific backgrounds.

Jessica and Evan are great presenters. They know their subjects well, present them in a manner that is understandable to both the novice and the expert. Their enthusiasm is contagious!!! What great representatives for WVU and the work of the Planetarium!!

I am sure it is awkward and challenging, but you did a brilliant job, and it was nice to have "a place to go" on a Friday night.

My newly 3-yr-old daughter really enjoyed the story and seeing a scientist read it to her. She reported to me that she learned there was a girl who went to school to do numbers. I thought that was a great take away for a toddler!

The presenter did an AMAZING job of keeping the kids engaged and keeping the content age appropriate. He was excited about the content and that was extremely well conveyed to the kids. I would love to see him do more of these types of shows!

The WVU Planetarium and Observatory continues to offer new and exciting shows, virtually, to audiences near and far with new fans showing up to shows ready to learn, engage and have fun. 

To participate in the next WVU Planetarium virtual show, check out upcoming show times, and learn more about the Planetarium and Observatory, please visit:
Follow the WVU Planetarium on social media at:
Twitter: @WVUPlanetarium

To learn more about WV SPOT, please visit: