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The Sky’s the Limit

new Zeiss projector

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For a few minutes on April 28, if you were looking for a gaggle of local lawmakers and Springfield Museums board members, you’d have to look beyond earth, because they were traveling through space.

At least, they felt like they were.

That’s the idea, anyway, and it’s becoming reality thanks to the addition of a state-of-the-art Zeiss Velvet full-dome projector in the Seymour Planetarium, which will provide a fully immersive, 3D experience for visitors to the Springfield Science Museum. The planetarium opened to the public with the new system on April 29, the day after legislators and museum supporters got a tour.

“Our new projector creates an incredibly immersive experience,” said Jenny Powers, director of the Science Museum. “We hope that even more in-depth learning will happen when our visitors feel that they are traveling through part of our universe.”

The planetarium’s venerable Korkosz star ball — in continuous operation since 1937 — is not being replaced; in fact, it works in tandem with the Zeiss projector to create a more detailed, realistic virtual journey through the cosmos.

Meanwhile, just down the hall from the planetarium, a newly upgraded, interactive International Space Station exhibit will provide visitors with a better understanding of what it takes (and what it’s like) to fly among the stars, living and working in outer space for months on end. That improved exhibit also opened on April 29.

“In addition to the educational value of these improvements for schools and workforce development, the dynamic additions to the Science Museum will help drive tourism and generate critical economic development for the region.”

Taken together, these improvements — and others throughout the Science Museum — represent a $750,000 investment made possible through private donations as well as support from the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism and a partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration under a federal earmark sponsored by U.S. Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren.

Kay Simpson, president and CEO of the Springfield Museums, said these projects are major steps toward the goal of making the museums the premier STEM learning center of the region.

“Today is historic,” she told the gathered guests the day before the new exhibits opened. “The story starts back in 1934 to 1937, when the Korkosz brothers of Chicopee made a star-ball projector by hand for the Seymour Planetarium. And they did this because it was the Depression and the museum could not afford a state-of-the-art Zeiss projection system. That being said, this star-ball projector was a marvel of innovation and invention. And it entertained such celebrities as movie star Clark Gable, who actually saw a live show in the planetarium in 1939.”

Fast-forward to 2022, and the museum was still using what had become the oldest operating star ball, not just in the country, but in the world, she added.

“So we’re very, very proud of our antique star ball, but we knew that we could do so much more to teach children and families about the wonders of the universe and really provide high-quality STEM learning experiences for students,” Simpson said. “So we’re fortunate that we were able to receive funding through federal and state earmarks so we could finally purchase the state-of-the-art Zeiss projector that we could not afford back in 1934. We have come full circle, and we are so excited about what is happening.”


The Final Frontier

In 2018, Simpson explained, the Springfield Museums launched its Evolution Campaign, which was designed to make the Science Museum a 21st-century, state-of-the-art attraction.

“In addition to the educational value of these improvements for schools and workforce development, the dynamic additions to the Science Museum will help drive tourism and generate critical economic development for the region,” she said.

Simpson emphasized the public and private support for the project, which has drawn on state and federal earmarks and leveraged funding from private foundations and individuals as well.

“So, needless to say, this is just an incredible moment for the Science Museum and a major investment in amplifying our importance as an educational resource for students and also a must-see tourist attraction. And I think we are really doing great work on both fronts.

opening of the upgraded planetarium

Kay Simpson celebrates the opening of the upgraded planetarium alongside (from left) state Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, state Sen. Jake Oliveira, and Darryl Williams from the office of state Rep. Bud Williams.

“We all know that the education for our children is essential for workforce development,” she added. “We hear a lot about educational equity. Museums are playing a role in all of that. And tourism, as we all know, is a major economic driver in Western Massachusetts.”

State Rep. Carlos Gonzalez agreed. “We know the importance of tourism; we know the importance of these destinations,” he said. “Having these locations to bring people from across the world to visit is so critical and important. But also, for the community and city of Springfield to come and embrace the educational opportunities that they have here is so great.”

State Sen. Jake Oliveira agreed. “Tourism is our third-largest industry, and it is so important for the Pioneer Valley, and the Springfield Museums have played such a critical role in that.”

He added that he was pleased to attend the legislative visit as someone who has always loved outer space. In fact, he recalled visiting the Springfield Museums as a child, taking in the space exhibits, and dreaming of one day being an astronaut.

“That dream ended very quickly when I realized I’m afraid of heights, small places, and fires. So that dream ended very quickly,” Oliveira said. “But I’m so glad that so many families can explore the opportunities of space that we have here at the Springfield Museums — and going into a planetarium that can actually project the images of the Webb Space Telescope, which are some of the most beautiful images of our galaxy and beyond that we can see.”

Powers emphasized the potential the Seymour Planetarium will have in creating customized programs for local teachers and students.

“There are two different ways that we’re going to be able to serve schools,” she said. “First of all, the planetarium shows have previews, and we’ve been able to embed them on our website so teachers can see them in advance and match the content of the show to what they need to teach their children. That’s really important.”

“The planetarium shows have previews, and we’ve been able to embed them on our website so teachers can see them in advance and match the content of the show to what they need to teach their children.”

In addition, Kevin Kopchynski, STEM curator for the Springfield Museums, can create custom shows for students, Powers explained.

“So if a teacher comes in from any level, from kindergarten up through college, and has a particular thing they need to focus on, Kevin can make them a show about that. It’s something that’s highly customizable.”

Also, for the first time ever, the planetarium will offer Spanish-language planetarium shows.

“We can do almost any kind of representation that we want to using this system,” Powers said. “The modern planetarium shows offer us such a greater diversity of people than the old ones do. That’s one way we can serve not only schools, but all of our visitors. We’re incredibly excited about that.


The Next Generation

Darryl Williams, district director for state Rep. Bud Williams, spoke at the legislative event and, like Oliveira, recalled fond early memories of the Science Museum.

“This is my favorite museum here in Springfield. I grew up going to this museum every summer; my parents made sure that we came here,” he said, noting that his parents also bought him a telescope to gaze at Mars and Venus and myriad constellations — and that he was inspired by learning about the accomplishments of scientists during his museum visits.

“I really enjoyed it, and I look forward to many, many more years,” he said, “and I look forward showing my grandkids this one day.”

That’s the kind of legacy the Springfield Science Museum and its Seymour Planetarium has cultivated for generations, and will continue to cultivate — only now, in much sharper detail.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Springfield Museums announced that Jenny Powers has been named director of the Springfield Science Museum. A science educator for 20 years and the family engagement coordinator for the Springfield Museums for six years, Powers is ready to take her knowledge of playful learning to the Science Museum in the form of interactive, immersive additions to the museum. She also takes inspiration from the last woman who directed the Science Museum, Grace Pettis Johnson, who led the way from 1910 to 1949.

Powers’ dynamic programing has filled the Museums on family-engagement days with exciting features such as bubble parties, high-fives with the Cat in the Hat, and Mount Crumpit derbies during Grinchmas. She has also been a regular guest on WWLP’s Mass Appeal, sharing hands-on science that families could explore together at home.

“The opportunity the Museums have to help our visitors expand their worlds with science is so important,” Powers said. “What makes our museum especially vital is that people of all ages can explore ideas together, teaching and learning from each other. Our museum can offer fun, entertaining information that will be helpful in the real world.

“I love that the Science Museum offers visitors chances for simple, positive interactions. This is when the most important learning happens,” she went on. “By ensuring that the science we present is relevant to our visitors’ lives, we can deepen their museum experience and know that they can use science to improve their lives and the lives of those around them.”

Powers said her overall vision is to always present the most up-to-date science. What this means is adding stations throughout the museums that are easy to change and update. “We want to be nimble because science changes as researchers look, discover, and understand more. We want to be a science museum that is relevant today and into the future — and we want to be fun.”

For Powers, fun means not only entertaining, but also barrier-free. “We want to make sure that every visitor feels welcome by including diverse stories and accessible spaces.”

Kay Simpson, president and CEO of the Springfield Museums, noted that “Jenny excels at engagement. As we move the museums forward as relevant, inspiring, interactive spaces, we could not have a better leader than Jenny, who makes science understandable, exciting, and accessible for all people whether they are new to the subject or experts. Jenny is highly knowledgeable about current museum practices, innovative in her approaches to education, and she is passionate about inclusion. She is just the visionary leader we need to bring our beloved Science Museum into the 21st century and beyond.”

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Springfield Museums announced the receipt of a $750,000 federal earmark in support of upgrading the Springfield Science Museum.

“The funded project is called Equitable Access to the Night Sky,” said Jenny Powers, director of the Science Museum. “And it is going to be a game changer for the Museums, our community, and our region.”

The public announcement of this federal earmark underscored the united effort to secure these funds by U.S. Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, and the Massachusetts congressional delegation. Museums staff learned about the federal earmark from Markey’s office.

“The federal funds will help us leap into the 21st century,” Powers said.

The Science Museum is already evolving at a fast pace. In 2019, the Museums added the Smithsonian Spark!Lab, a hands-on innovation space facilitated by a science educator, the only Spark!Lab in the Northeast. In 2021, the staff renovated the Seymour Planetarium, upgrading seating and refurbishing the historic star ball. Projected to open in June 2022, the International Space Station gallery will spotlight STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) learning with a series of interactive stations that mimic those in the space station orbiting our planet. All these changes are helping the Science Museum take huge strides toward the vision of being an essential, informal STEM-learning hub for this region.

As part of a three-year strategic plan, the Museums are prioritizing relevance, diversity, inclusion, equity, and access. “The Science Museum must respond to community interest. We must provide relevant opportunities that draw everyone into the new, tech-savvy, multi-dimensional world,” Powers said. “This money will help us bridge equity and access gaps. We are already a beloved institution; we will have an even greater impact as a public asset with the upgrades this money will provide.”

Plans for improvement include a full-dome, digital projection system with state-of-the-art software for the planetarium to augment the historical star ball and add multi-cultural perspectives to the night sky; digitization of the observatory to allow full access to the stars for anyone, anywhere via online projection; and tactile, multi-sensory astronomy exhibits for visitors who are blind or have low vision.

“Regional educators, students, community partners, and user experts have helped us identify flexible, essential, inclusive educational technology,” said Larissa Murray, director of Education for the Springfield Museums. “The recent upgrades to our science workshop include accommodations for students with special needs and systems for remote access. These changes are increasing our ability to impact a wider audience than ever before.”

For more than 160 years, the Science Museum has nurtured curiosity, fueled discovery, and transformed lives, said Kay Simpson, president and CEO of the Springfield Museums. “The Museums provide opportunities — joyful, exciting, and relevant opportunities. These funds will support new pathways to wonder for visitors of all ages and provide inclusive, impactful museum experiences with 21st-century technologies. Plus, our newly upgraded museum will be a dynamic driver of visitation to Western Massachusetts.”

Markey noted that “this federal funding for Massachusetts means we can initiate, strengthen, and expand community-based projects that serve our families, businesses, and cities and towns every day. These projects will spur our economy, strengthen our resiliency, expand access to important healthcare, promote clean energy and climate solutions, and help feed and house our most vulnerable in every region of our Commonwealth. I am proud that my delegation partners and I were able to secure this critical funding, and I will continue to fight for the resources Massachusetts communities need to thrive and grow.”

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Museums will welcome state Sen. Eric Lesser on Monday, Oct. 25 at 11 a.m. to announce a $100,000 earmark from the Commonwealth to help fund the International Space Station exhibit in the Springfield Science Museum. The public is welcome to attend this announcement on the Quadrangle green.

Earmarks from the Commonwealth are a source of funding outside the normal budgeting process for specific programs and services. Elected officials sponsor and advocate for earmarks to benefit their constituents. Gov. Charlie Baker approves, rejects, or amends earmarks as needed.

“As a valued informal STEM learning space, we were very excited to continue work on the International Space Station exhibit,” said Kay Simpson, president and CEO of the Springfield Museums. “The funding secured by Senator Lesser is a welcome addition to the funds needed to open this important and fascinating gallery.”

The Springfield Museums is constructing a fully immersive representation of the International Space Station module Destiny. The gallery will have an ‘airlock’ entrance and dynamic view of Earth from the exhibit’s bay-window cupola. The vestibule is nearing completion and will include a facsimile astronaut suit as well as interactive features that help visitors better understand the science of space exploration. Plans are also underway for a facilitated, roving ‘space cart,’ which will include items from an astronaut’s gear that visitors can touch. A facilitator will be available to answer questions and share information about space travel.

Currently on view outside the gallery is an interactive screen donated by NASA. Visitors can touch the image of the International Space Station to find out more information about its function.

“We are grateful to Senator Lesser for advocating for this earmark to come to the Science Museum,” said Mike Kerr, director of the Springfield Science Museum. “The International Space Station Gallery is sure to inspire young scientists to reach for the stars.”