ST. JOHNSBURY — The Lyman Spitzer Jr. Planetarium was installed in 1961 at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury, and continues to be the only public planetarium in Vermont. In an effort to increase and diversify the planetarium’s offerings and science programming, the museum welcomed Oliver Ames as the planetarium director last month.
“Accessibility is something I hope to improve in our planetarium. Not only physical accessibility, but also making sure every show fits its recommended audience age better,” said Ames. “An example of such an effort is in aligning our programs with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS for short) that Vermont follows. This not only will help us serve our school audiences better by using the same standards that are used in the classroom, but it will help make sure we are teaching appropriate-level content to the general public as well.”
With a background in education, Ames found his calling in the museum industry. He began as a planetarium presenter in 2013 at Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport Treworgy Planetarium. From there, his passion flourished, and he helped expand weekend programming, produced and narrated live planetarium shows, and was involved with the students and teachers who visited the planetarium, in addition to hosting a teacher’s day.
In 2014, Ames began developing summer planetarium programming at the Fairbanks, returning the following year to continue that work.
“My first initiative will take place this summer, with launching a more robust selection of shows to offer audiences a wider diversity of information they can enjoy in our planetarium,” Ames said. “The shows will take place five times each day with short, 15-minute shows for preschool-age visitors.”
Museums everywhere are working hard to assert that they are necessary and relevant to education, conserving and protecting artifacts and history while providing opportunity for interactive study outside the classroom. Yet, with tighter budgets and standardized test scores that need to be met, field trips, a key part of museum attendance, have been in decline. According to a survey by the American Association of School Administrators, more than half of schools had eliminated planned field trips in 2012 due to budget cuts.
“Museums provide community connection. Museums are special, and our museums here in Vermont tie those who visit to the community’s history with specialized content,” said Troy Hickman, arts education manager at the Vermont Arts Council in Montpelier. “Having access to museums in rural communities provides equitable opportunity for all students. The information that museums provide is relevant, specialized, hands-on, and there are museums here in Vermont that are linking their context to educational standards, such as the Fairbanks Museum, the Shelburne Museum, and others.”
The Vermont Arts Council offers Cultural Routes grants that fund student field trips to arts and cultural institutions. The $200 grant supports transportation costs, and remaining funds can be used to subsidize other expenses.
“The planetarium is very important to our educational mission at the Fairbanks Museum, to help foster young thinkers and learnings, but also to the greater museum as a whole. During the school year we have school groups visiting nearly every day to either a planetarium show or one of our other classroom activities. We even have schools that come from more than two hours away to enjoy the work of our world-class presenters and programs,” said Ames.
Visiting museums, according to online journal EducationNext, helps students become more aware and observant — promoting critical thinking by exposing students to a diversity of ideas, people, places and time periods.
“Our programs will provide students with a seamless transition from the museum back to school. We work closely with teachers to provide lesson plans that can be customized to closely align with what is being taught at school. And, for the general public, we are keeping up with content that is geared toward teaching according to grade level,” Ames said.
Museums across the state are making an extra effort in designing more curriculum-tailored exhibits and lesson plans that teachers and museum directors create together to align with standardized state tests.
“We work hand-in-hand with schools. We bolster what they’re working on in their classrooms. We are a resource outside the box, outside the classroom,” said Jen Kopf, manager of interpretation and education at the Billings Farm & Museum in Woodstock. “We help teachers achieve the goals they need to achieve while enhancing topics with sight, smell and touch — hands-on, an extra level of depth in the process of learning.”
Students in rural areas and or disadvantaged students benefit the most from museum visits, making exceptional gains in critical thinking, historical empathy, tolerance, and becoming art consumers, according to a study by the American Alliance of Museums.
“My primary focus is to our audiences, and we have delivered world-class shows since the planetarium was built. My goal over the next few years is to further build on what we have created here with our public and private audiences,” said Ames. “As we offer more diverse, more accessible programing, we expect that the planetarium will continue to grow and thrive. In doing so, it will continue to be an integral experiential and financial part of the museum.”
The Fairbanks Museum was founded in 1889 by Franklin Fairbanks. Learn more at fairbanksmuseum.org.