Saturday, April 26, 2014

Find Yourself In the Stars

Post by Pete Bruecken: Pete has been teaching science for 40 years, the last 24 years at Bettendorf High School. He also serves as the the Director of our Planetarium. Next year he will move to the position of Instructional Coach. You can follow him on twitter @PeterBruecken

I have been teaching physics for 40 years, 24 of them have been spent at Bettendorf High School on the corner of Interstate 80 and the Mississippi River.  One of the reasons I came here was because Bettendorf High School was the ONE school in Iowa that had a planetarium and I thought the people who put a planetarium in their school must be pretty special so I went for the job and got it.   I also was, unknown to me at the time, handpicked by the previous physics teacher and namesake to the planetarium, Donald Schaefer. So, 24 years ago, my family and I made the trek from the west coast of Iowa (Missouri River) to the east coast of Iowa (Mississippi River) making us true bi-coastal Midwesterners.

When I took the job, it was made clear to me that teaching was the #1 priority and the planetarium was secondary; sort of like coaching is secondary to teaching for athletic coaches.  After all, I was the assistant director and had an awesome collaborator, Pete Sweedy, to bring me up to speed on how to run the "instrument".  The duties included running scheduled programs for classes, repairing and maintaining the "instrument", creating new programs and running live programs for community groups.  I had to learn the constellations, the electronics that ran them, the folklore of the celestial bodies and work the "instrument" to simulate them.  When I took the job I thought I was ready.  I had astronomy courses and knew my way around the sky but it took me years to get to a point where I could perform the duties in a seamless manner.  Fortunately, I had  Pete Sweedy  to bring me along while I learned the systems.  I was affectionately known as "RePete". 

About 5 years after I took the job, it became clear that the planetarium should be used to meet the needs of the elementary schools as well as the high school.  It was then that I realized that the "instrument" wasn't the focus.  The "instrument" wasn't why the founders of the building in the 1970's invested in the dome and the "classroom real estate" for a planetarium.   They invested in this facility for the students that would benefit from it.  It was to be an instructional tool that would keep our attention on the development and interest of our students. How was I going to make the transition from focusing on running the "instrument", to focusing on the students?  Well, that's where the story gets interesting...

Our assistant superintendent came to the science team with a problem.  It seemed the elementary teachers were teaching different science topics in different grades at our 6 elementary schools so certain topics were being repeated and the curriculum was not consistent.   Pete Sweedy suggested we give planetarium programs to the elementary schools as field trips and make the programs the same for each grade.  We chose particular astronomical programs for each grade that would match their curricular needs.  This idea helped align the elementary curriculum.  It worked pretty well and morphed into providing pure chemistry and pure physics shows that didn't have anything to do with astronomy!  The planetarium became sort of a science center for the elementary schools.  The elementary students loved coming to the planetarium as a field trip and the district supported the bus rides and the time needed to run the programs.

The next evolution came at the high school.  We have block scheduling and were faced with broadening  the choices students had for elective courses.   Our current assistant director and I thought we could offer a course in "Planetarium Productions" so we could work with high school students to make a planetarium show.  This seemed to be a good way to add another dimension to the planetarium. 

This proved to be a great idea as most students had fond memories of coming to the planetarium when they were in elementary school and could now work the other side of that experience.  Due to an upgrade, we had moved into the digital age with digital projectors replacing some of the old slide projectors.  The digital media enabled students to use their videos and digital pictures instead of slide photography.  This advance brought the students closer to making a successful program.  The course focused the talents of our students on creating a program for other students.  Again, the focus was on the students. 

BHS Planetarium

These programs were tailored to the specific needs of our school system. The students that experienced the programs were interested in hearing and seeing what their peers produced and were impressed with the work that had been done.  There is just nothing like 5th graders seeing what high school students do for them.  It seemed that bringing the planetarium to life this way exceeded the founder's vision for the planetarium as it was reborn with the work of our students.

Now I'm not a fancy person (I drive a 38 year old car), but I think when the lights go down and the 40 year old star "instrument" puts the millennia-old stars on the dome, the people who went to the trouble of putting that facility in our school would be smiling.  It has added a uniqueness to the experiences of the people who have trekked through the Bettendorf school system.  Much credit is due the school boards, accountants, administrators and staff that have not laid it on the chopping block of budget cuts and fiscal fatalities.  I would like to think the planetarium stands as a symbol of today's commitment to the same paradigm the founders had in mind when they put it into the school 40 years ago.  It keeps us focused on the educational experiences of our students by making those experiences creative in all subject areas. 

The planetarium accompanies the life-long  learning of kindergartner and grandparent alike.  They gaze at the stars through fresh eyes in elementary school or watch a program on The Christmas Star, Shakespeare or Sky Watchers of Ancient Mexico.   They write scripts, narrate or put graphics in their story as they discover more about themselves through the programs they create.  The "instrument" is what it was designed to be, a learning tool for our whole community, as each person finds themselves in the stars. 

1 comment:

  1. My grandfather was on the Bett school board at the time they built the new BHS in the early 70's. His was the deciding vote on whether the new high school would get a planetarium. He traveled to Seattle to visit a flagship school to see their newfangled "star room", as he called it. He came back to Bettendorf saying "we have to get ourselves one of those!" He's 99 now and I've shown him the planetarium several times - even giving him his own star show a couple times, haha. Pete, he does, indeed, smile whenever he sees himself among the stars. You have done a fantastic job of aligning with their original vision... and you will continue to do so in your new role next year. Congratulations on 40+ years of teaching and your new position next year! Jenn Johnston