The Sky’s No Limit at Penn-Harris-Madison Digital Video Theater & Planetarium
Writer & Photographer / Lois Tomaszewski
Who would expect an elementary school to deliver an out-of-this-world experience for students and the public? In the case of the Penn-Harris-Madison School Corporation, longtime science teacher Art Klinger had just that vision in 1980, when Bittersweet Elementary School was being built. He advocated for a planetarium to be included in the school’s design.
The school district agreed, and the planetarium he envisioned continues to deliver educational and entertaining programming under the direction of Melinda O’Malley, who took over when Klinger retired in 2015. The Digital Video Theater & Planetarium promises a lot and it does a lot, both academically and for community engagement.
Housed in display cases surrounding the digital theater are artifacts from space missions, photographs of NASA astronauts, and models depicting the history of space exploration. There is also memorabilia donated by astronauts like Jerry Ross from Crown Point or on loan from NASA, the Kennedy Space Center, the Johnson Space Center and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
O’Malley estimates that 11,000 students visit the planetarium every year. She frequently welcomes students from preschool through high school for programs that extend the curriculum taught in school. This curriculum is not limited to space exploration or even science. O’Malley has programs on bugs, history, environments, art, and cell structure.
“It’s a fully immersible experience that allows for more than a typical space and astronomy program,” she says.
The digital nature of the planetarium gives O’Malley the flexibility of showing a presentation on any subject, offering a concert experience, or doing a live presentation on the current view of the galaxy. She has access to more than 50 different shows.
There are 92 seats in the theater, which is 30 feet in diameter and fully accessible for all guests. The surround-sound system lends to the experience, providing the bass that makes the audience feel the rockets taking off, O’Malley says.
The public programs vary every month. Sometimes the shows are centered around a theme, like the December show, which features holiday music including songs from Kwanzaa, Hispanic culture, and the celebrations of faiths and other cultures. O’Malley puts up a 70-piece movable seasonal scene that is 20 feet wide and eight feet deep.
Additional shows focus on the science of astronomy, or provide the audience with a look at the nighttime skies through digital technology. Others focus on an aspect of space exploration, such as a recent series that looked at the discoveries made possible by Galileo’s telescope.
Laser music shows are shown in January and February. Previous concerts have featured music from David Bowie, Queen, the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, Rush and other artists. These shows feature a music soundtrack and laser light synchronicity to the music.
Some of the popular shows returning in 2024 include the “Winter Night Sky.” This live presentation gives an overview of the constellations, stars, colors of stars, the galaxy, and the planets seen in the sky during this time of the year.
This interaction, be it with the students or the public, sends a message about the school district, O’Malley says.
“This is not just fluff,” she says. “It’s part of who we are. It’s part of the special atmosphere we have here.”
The museum is open for the audience to peruse 30 minutes before the scheduled showtime. Shows are presented from September through May. Shows last approximately 45 to 50 minutes.
Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for students or seniors. On Veterans Day, all veterans are admitted free. For the laser music shows, admission is $5.
Reservations can be made in advance through the Penn-Harris-Madison schools website. Tickets may be available at the door, but are on a first-come, first-served basis.