NKU digital center is first in nation

Construction will begin this summer on a new Digital Science Center that would become the first high-resolution Digital Planetarium ever built in the nation.

The digital center would be in the new Natural Science Building and include a planetarium with a 30-foot dome, “smart” classroom equipment and new software and technology. The university has been planning for the new facility for years according to Dr. Chuck Hawkins, physics and geology chair, but a lack of space and funding prevented the beginning of construction.

“The original idea was to put a planetarium in the Old Science Building in room 400, for use in instruction. It turned out that there was not enough space between floors to accommodate the height needed for the dome,” Hawkins said. “In the first plans for the new [science] building, the planetarium was left out, due to space considerations. At one point, Dr. [Jerry] Warner agreed to put it in one of the large biology lecture rooms.

“By the time all was said and done, it was possible to design a space that would accommodate the facility, but the construction and equipment budget was too tight to put in the dome or purchase the hardware and software for the planetarium.”

The delay of construction may be beneficial, however, because now the university can obtain the latest versions of software that have more capabilities than programs that were first available.

“The first generation of digital planetaria essentially just projected black and white star fields and had less resolution than the older opto-mechanical projectors. It could do some line drawing for special effects, but not a lot more,” Hawkins said. “This was replaced by a second and then a third generation using high resolution video projectors and a cluster of high performance computers to control them, which meant that literally anything that can be put into digital format can be projected on the dome.”

“So now instead of just talking about astronomy, one is talking about a total immersion video experience … so that the viewers are right in the middle of it,” said Hawkins.

The center could be open for classes by Spring 2005. Students in grades P-12 will also have access to the center, and summer workshops will also make use of the center.

“We will offer programming in a variety of subjects for students from preschool through college,” said Dan Spence, the digital planetarium coordinator. “Some of the first things you’ll see in will include ‘Imagination, Art, and Science,’ our first show, two shows in support of our astronomy classes, a ‘Tour of the Planets’ for visiting schools, a geology program about dinosaurs, and much more in the coming years.”