One of the tough parts of teaching big ideas in science is that sometimes the ideas are just too big.
Starting this weekend, University of Louisville’s Gheens Science Hall and Rauch Planetarium will have a little help when an exciting new exhibition opens. Consisting of 132 specimens, 90 of which are meteorites, it comes from the private collection of the late Louisvillian William G. Russell.
The exhibit includes a fragment of a meteor that hit Louisville in 1977, damaging buildings and a car and creating a sonic boom heard as far away as West Point, Ky., and Georgetown, Ind. Other highlights include dust from Mars, a meteorite from our moon, a translucent meteorite, and iron meteorites that you’ll be allowed to touch.
Planetarium Director Tom Tretter spoke with Insider about how the new addition will help students and teachers learn science — and science pedagogy.
While there are a lot of interesting meteorites on display, this writer was most excited by the specimens in the collection that visitors can touch. This sort of hands-on activity fits in well with what Tretter studies.
“It’s studying how people learn science, in particular how people learn science that is not directly accessible,” he says. “It may be too big a time scale, too big a spatial scale, so the astronomy context is perfect.”
In other words, how do you teach the size of the universe? How do you really comprehend something that is billions and billions of years old? How can a 10-year-old grasp infinity? You teach it by letting kids touch space rocks that are billions of years old that have traveled countless miles to end up at the tips of their fingers.
It’s Tretter’s pedagogical studies and research, essentially how to teach “how to teach,” that got him in charge at the planetarium.
“A lot of what I was doing in science education connected with using the planetarium as an academic educational resource for education, as well as a research lab essentially for education,” says Tretter.
This exhibit, awesome space rocks and all, will be a permanent part of Gheens Science Hall, which is a change — one that has the planetarium staff abuzz.
“We have not had a permanent exhibit — we’ve had exhibits that rotated,” says Tretter. “It’s quite a big deal for us. We are excited for the opportunity to have a place that’s a perfect venue essentially. We host over 20,000 people a year through school groups, the general public and the university. And that’s a venue to reach that many people in terms of programing.”
The idea of the scale of time on which the universe operates also pops up when discussing Tretter’s personal favorite parts of touching the meteorites.
“One of the things I find particularly fascinating about touching the rocks from space is these rocks are older than anything on the Earth,” he says.
Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. But there is likely nothing on Earth that old. The constant — though epically slow — processes of geology are continually moving, crushing and melting all the rocks on Earth, not to mention all the flora and fauna.
But these rocks have been hurtling through space, untouched by magma or the strong gravity of a planet, until they finally crashed into our humble home of a planet, tucked away in a sleepy little arm of the Milky Way galaxy. Earth’s oldest rocks are 3.8 billion years old, and meteorites are often more like 4.5 billion.
“They are like frozen moments in time, and they allow us to learn about the formation of the solar system,” Tretter adds.
At the exhibition, students learn from and experience the meteorites, but just as important are the current and future teachers who get hands-on experience.
“We do a lot of teacher professional development,” says Tretter.
With the arrival the meteorites — at UofL, not on Earth — the university will begin creating and designing curriculum that maximizes the potential of the new exhibit, and even that experience is being used to teach.
“We have several planetarium educators, including doctoral students, who will be doing a lot of that work,” says Tretter.
Those doctoral students are in the process of earning degrees focused on pedagogy, and they serve to reinforce how many different kinds of learning happen through the planetarium’s programing.
“We do have our teacher programs at UofL, both a pre-certification teachers, teachers who’ve not yet been teaching … and then we have student teachers who are getting advanced degrees and advanced certification who sometimes take advantage of our facility,” explains Tretter. “And then we have many programs where we work with teachers in the community. We work with the district, with the Archdiocese, the surrounding districts of Oldham and Bullitt counties.”
You can be one of the first visitors to learn something on Sunday, Dec. 17, and touch a piece of the sky when the planetarium hosts a grand opening celebration from 2-4 p.m. Admission is free to the planetarium, located at 106 W. Brandeis Ave.