Thursday, August 9, 2012

Months of hard work turn a labor of love into a reality!

I've decided I'd like to chronicle my journey of making planetarium shows at the James S. McDonnell Planetarium at the Saint Louis Science Center (where I have the joy of working) accessible for our visitors who are blind or have low vision.  I've already done so much work but there's also so much more to be done.  This post will serve to recap the last 9 months of work since the conception of this project to now, with future posts following along through our first visitors getting to experience the program.

The project actually started with a class I took in Museum Education for my Masters in Museum Studies at the Johns Hopkins University.  We had to create a proposal for an education program that was either new or adapted a current program.  Upon looking around my planetarium where I was at that time a volunteer, I noticed that we had ways to make our shows and exhibits accessible for our visitors who had physical exceptionalities and for our visitors who are Deaf or who are hard of hearing, but nothing really for our visitors who were blind or had low vision.  I decided then that my program would focus on changing this.  

The program I proposed, "Feeling the Stars," will serve as a pilot to adapt all our other shows, but the show I picked, The Little Star That Could, I picked for a few reasons:  1) It has fantastic content that no matter the age of the viewer (even though it is intended for young children) one can learn something. 2) It is shown in planetariums all over the world (thus we could offer the program to other planetariums, helping them become more accessible too!). 3) It has been in planetariums since 1986 when it was first written, produced and shown in the McDonnell Star Theater at the Saint Louis Science Center (SLSC), which means that it has held its appeal for almost 27 years now (and will most likely continue to hold that appeal). 4) It was the first star show I ever saw as a child and holds a very special place in my heart (and I've seen it have the same effect on visitors year after year).  

The visitors would first be introduced to the space through a tactile model of the theater, allowing them to safely learn about the projector through touch.  The show the students/visitors would be seeing talks a lot about stars colors and how they relate to temperature.  Since these visitors may never have seen colors before, it would be necessary to help prime their schemas and make sense of it in a concrete way before the show begins (especially since they would have probably heard analogies that red is hot and blue is cold (which is the exact opposite when it comes to stars).  To do this, plushies of the characters (stars) would be made so that the students/visitors could feel the facial features.  These characters would also be microwaveable though (like a Bed Buddy or Rice Sock) and heated to different temperatures.  That plus the different textures from different fabrics would help get the ideas across and build this new schema before experiencing the star show.  Visitors would also be given tactile books with raised images of the show so they could follow along with the program by feeling what was going on on the dome.  There would also be an iPad option for visitors who had low vision.  Descriptive audio would also be available to enhance the experience.  Lastly Braille and large signage would be added by the regular signage on all the exhibits as well, facilitating the self-guided visits (with optional guided tours available upon request.

At the end of the class, I approached my boss and showed him my proposal.  He was beyond supportive and we immediately started working with other staff throughout the museum to make my proposal a reality.  For nine months we've been polishing and perfecting the proposal and toying with prototypes like this little guy (forgive my sewing skills... the actual product will be much better):

The original yellow plush toy prototype of the main character, Little Star (or Sol) is sitting in the middle of an artistic image of the sun on a terrazzo floor.
Little Star (Sol) on the Sun

and this prototype mini model (bottom) of our planetarium's projector based off of my rendering (top) made by one of our amazing preparators (actual will be a much larger model with a lot more detail): 

The projector looks like a blue egg with bumps all over it raised up on crutches in the middle of a room that has an enormous dome.  Half of the dome has been cut away in this image to reveal the room better.
Google SketchUp Model of the Zeiss Universarium IX in the StarBay
The projector looks like a blue egg with bumps all over it raised up on crutches.  This sits upon a black large black box in the shape of the letter Y.  On the long stem of the Y are 8 rectangular boxes.  The egg projects the stars while the boxes project the planets, sun and moon.
Mini Prototype Model of the  Zeiss Universarium IX Projector (Thanks Ian!)

After months of working so hard and pulling everything together, it came time to ask for funding.  On Monday we were awarded a grant by Lighthouse for the Blind - Saint Louis to cover the first part of the proposal (which will get us rolling and able to reach our target audience).  They've also agreed to match donations to cover the second and third parts of the proposal up to half of the cost!  This is going to happen!  

I definitely owe special thanks to my boss, John, to Suzanne and to our wonderful volunteer Deb for all their support and work in this process.  I'd also like to give a very big thank you to John, Stephen and Angie at Lighthouse for the Blind - Saint Louis.  You have all been extremely kind with your time and resources!

What started as a simple idea, turned into a labor of love and finally ended up becoming a reality.  We're hopefully going to open up a whole new world for our audience! 

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