MCC's new planetarium takes students out of this world
McHenry County College astronomy instructor Paul Hamill zooms through space and lands on planets as part of a virtual tour through the universe in the college's state-of-the-art planetarium in the new Liebman Science Center.
"I am no longer limited to showing a still image or a video to represent celestial objects of space during class time," Hamill said. "I have the ability to display the solar system live instead of using a static image. I can fly past the craters on the moon and fly to Saturn or to the volcanoes on Mars."
MCC is one of only four community colleges in Illinois with such a facility, making it a unique resource in the area. The planetarium features a digital projection system that displays an accurate arrangement of the stars and planets on an 8.3-meter dome, along with theater-style seating for 45 adults and five wheelchair-accessible seating.
"In our old planetarium, we could only fit up to 25 adults sitting on the floor," he said.
At a recent planetarium showing, Hamill showed "Journey to the Center of the Milky Way," one of 25 preloaded video shows that includes planets, the sun, the moon, the universe, stars and several children's shows.
A unique highlight features the planetarium's window, which is illuminated at night on the north side of the building and displays one of the first Hubble telescope images of the galaxy depicting the Tarantula Nebula, also known as 30 Doradus, one of the largest documented star-forming regions.
Outside the planetarium is a compass rose, a compass made from inlaid paver blocks on the ground that displays all eight standard geographic directions.
"My students can better learn geographic direction by immersing themselves in the compass," Hamill said. "The first time I used the compass rose, it transformed the lesson."
With this planetarium, the community's future astronomers and meteorologists have access to the latest technology and the best learning environment possible. The planetarium supports earth science courses, including Astronomy and Meteorology.
Hamill said he is eager to provide community members of all ages the opportunity to travel through the universe.
"My ultimate goal is to have every single student in McHenry County visit our college and planetarium before they become a college freshman."
To further provide learning opportunities for community members, the college hosts an educational Liebman Speaker Series, featuring topics such as science and art, astronomy, digital technology, food science, meteorology and weather broadcasting and paleontology.
A recent speaker event featured "The Science of Science Fiction" presented by Michelle Nichols of the Adler Planetarium. All sessions take place Friday mornings and are open and free to the public.
"The planetarium is amazing because we get to see a panoramic view of the sun, sky and planets," said Justin Kucharski of Woodstock. "The planetarium videos are relevant to what we learned in class."
"It was awesome to take astronomy and get to go into the planetarium," said Kairin Rozenfeld of Lake in the Hills.
"We got to see things demonstrated on the screen that we were learning about in class. My favorite part was when our teacher took us outside the Milky Way galaxy and we got to 'fly' through it and see the galaxy's flat shape. The documentaries were also really cool because they were formatted for the planetarium and they were almost 3-dimensional."
Currently, Hamill is working with the college to bring in school groups from local K-12 districts for educational planetarium showings.