Get to know our Planetarium Director!

Jessica Harrington
February 4, 2019

The Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium has a new director Jessica Herrington and she’s excited to share her ideas with us!

Jessica graduated with her masters in astronomy and astrophysics from the University of Michigan and is currently an astronomy instructor in the Physics Department at UMD. Before taking the position as UMD’s Planetarium Director, she worked as an observatory instructor at South Carolina State Museum.

What made you want to take on the role of Planetarium Director?

I first started working part time at a museum as one of the astronomy educators and I instantly fell in love with the aspect of informal education, which is where you don’t have strict standards or guidelines. It’s simply educating the people who are interested or who come in just to see the objects in the museum. From then on, I realized that was my passion and that’s what I wanted to do. This job gave me the best of both worlds where I could teach students formally in a college, but also teach informally out of my classroom.

What is the planetarium, for those who may not know?

To put it simply, it is a big dome theatre where we can project whatever we want up onto the screen. So, we can project the night sky and no matter what the weather is like we can look at the sky. The planetarium is also like a time machine. You can set it up for any time and any location. For example, there have been times where I’ve worked on projects with students and we set it up to be with Galileo in Italy. Students were able to recreate Galileo’s observations. We can also project full dome movies and we’re working with other departments to create other visualizations.

 What things are you most excited about as the new director of the planetarium?

There’s so much! I think I’m really excited about the potential we have here. I have incredible student workers who very passionate about astronomy and astronomy education. We have a really great projection set up. So, I’m really excited about the program we have and really expanding on it. I want to make us the center for astronomy education in the Duluth area, so that school groups and astronomy enthusiasts know where to go.

What are some things you plan to do differently?

There hasn’t been an official director for the planetarium for a long time, so just being able to dedicate time to it is helpful. I’m fully committed to the planetarium and creating fun and educational events for the community and our students.

How do you see the planetarium growing in the future?

My biggest goal right now is to grow our ability to reach school groups because there’s so much that you can learn in a planetarium. One of the struggles with learning about astronomy is that it may not make sense unless you can visually see it and see the motions and patterns of the night sky. So, being in the planetarium really helps to solidify that understanding. I want to grow our outreach program so we can help students and teachers better understand and develop an interest and passion for astronomy.

Who is your main audience for planetarium events?

The events are open to anyone who wants to come. We post all of our events on social media and try to provide a good variety in the types of shows. For example, our Star Wars shows are always very popular. Wednesday shows are always free and we charge a fee for Friday and Saturday shows. The money helps us pay for new shows and the technology that allows us to provide digital tours of the planets, which is a very expensive system.

What’s the biggest thing that you want people to take away from visiting the planetarium?

That space is cool… (Haha) No, I think a lot of it is to have an appreciation for the night sky. So many people live in cities so they don’t get to see what the true dark night sky looks like. Being able to reaffirm that and show people that we need to keep and preserve the dark night sky so that we can all see and experience it. All of us working here feel a sense of awe and wonder with the cosmos and we want to instill that with our visitors, too.