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John Deere Planetarium helps Augustana stand out
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More photos from this shoot
Photo: Gary Krambeck
Lee Carkner, Director of the John Deere Planetarium at Augustana College looks over the projections of stars from the Spitz A-3-P "star ball," that projects the stars onto the planetarium's dome ceiling.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Gary Krambeck
Lee Carkner, director of the John Deere Planetarium at Augustana College, checks over the Spitz A-3-P 'star ball' projector that projects the stars onto the planetarium's dome ceiling.
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Photo:
A large crowd gathered for the grand opening of the John Deere Planetarium at Augustana College in 1969.
ROCK ISLAND -- Augustana College is unique and historical in many ways, and being home to a fully operational planetarium adds to its distinction.

"This is an outstanding facility and resource for the college to connect with the community, especially with younger children, to feed their intellectual curiosity for space and astronomy," said Scott Cason, the college's assistant vice president of communications and marketing.

The John Deere Planetarium was a primary reason planetarium director Lee Carkner chose to teach at Augustana.

"Small liberal arts colleges don't usually have a facility like this, a dedicated planetarium for astronomy education," he said. "So this place is very unique. Usually, smaller schools don't devote that many resources to astronomy education. To me, this is very exciting.

"I was interested in teaching at a school where teaching was important, and I was also interested in doing astronomy outreach. I was trying to combine those things, and I didn't find many places that did that. For a small liberal arts school, this is rare. So I feel very fortunate to be here at Augustana."

Augustana's planetarium bears the John Deere name because the company was one of the facility's major contributors when it was built in the 1960s.

Mr. Carkner, who also is a physics professor and chair of the physics department, took over the planetarium about 10 years ago. Today he is just as passionate about the facility's mission as he was the day he took the helm.

"We try to bring the wonders of the night sky to people and get them interested and involved in science," he said.

Mr. Carkner heads a small team in operating the facility. His support staff consists of a secretary and a small host of volunteers, the most active among them being retired chemistry and astronomy professor Mel Peterson of Moline.

Mr. Peterson is his "director emeritus," Mr. Carkner said.

"The planetarium really serves as a focal point here on campus," Mr. Peterson said recently during a visit to the planetarium to perform routine maintenance. "There are people who come to programs here who have never been on this campus before.

"Even after being here for 40 years, the planetarium still gets people in here that say that."

Mr. Peterson taught at Augustana College from 1958 to 1998 and was present when John Deere Planetarium opened its doors in 1969. He served as planetarium director from 1988 to 1998. Today, at age 80, Mr. Peterson is the facility's leading volunteer.

"It's a lot of fun keeping up with what's going on in space," Mr. Peterson said. "We can see the sky in here. We never have clouds or rain inside here.

"We can show the sky, and the sky as it changes during the night and as it changes during the seasons. And we can do that anytime. Otherwise, we have to wait for clear skies to look with the observatory."

One of the planetarium's primary functions, in addition to serving as a teaching tool for Augustana students, is as a resource for local grade schools.

Thousands of area elementary school students come to the planetarium each year for educational programs, such as during Black History Month, when students were treated to "Follow the Drinking Gourd."

That program was geared toward students in grades 1 through 4. The program was based on a book of the same name by author Jeanette Winter, and originally was designed for the New Jersey State Museum Planetarium.

The special presentation combined history and science in the magical setting of the planetarium to educate students on the Underground Railroad, the escape route used by runaway slaves who used the stars to help guide them to freedom.

To find their way north, where they could be free, the slaves would look for the Big Dipper, which they referred to as the "Drinking Gourd," which is always in the northern sky.

Providing such unique educational opportunities is one of the highlights of his job as director, Mr. Carkner said.

"Having the kids in here is something that is just really great," he said. "They are not jaded. They're not cynical. They just think it's really cool.

"And it's very energizing to talk to such groups that are very interested in what they see here. I find the same thing is true of our students here at Augustana. They are very interested in astronomy as well. I find that very rewarding."

Mr. Carkner explained that the planetarium offers a more detailed view of the sky and space. In the center of the facility sits a large projector that projects the stars, by way of what's known as a "star ball," onto the planetarium's dome, which is 30 feet in diameter.

"Whatever the sky looks like outside, I can reproduce it in here," Mr. Carkner said. "We can also put the planets up, all in their proper place, move them around and change the sky for the different seasons. We can add pictures and images, such as pictures from the (NASA) Hubble Space Telescope or from landers on Mars or even drawings and animations."

Mr. Carkner's free educational program about the night sky and solar system at the planetarium is available for school classes and other groups of up to 100 people by appointment.

Every year Mr. Carkner receives numerous letters and correspondences from young students showing their appreciation for the facility. He displays such a letter on the bulletin board outside his campus office that he received in 2006 from a local grade-schooler named Jared.

Jared wrote: "Dear Dr. Carkner, thank you for letting us visit the planetarium. ... The planetarium really looked like the night sky. Everything was good. I hope I can come again."

Jared also drew a picture of the planetarium and its large dome with the stars projected upon it. Underneath the dome, he drew Mr. Carkner teaching a small group of students.

Mr. Carkner keeps every such letter he receives. Such accolades make his job worthwhile, he said.



For more information about the John Deere Planetarium or to schedule a program, visit http://helios.augustana.edu/astronomy/ or call (309) 794-7327.






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