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Welcome to the Science Dome

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SCIENCE DOME: Beam up some popcorn! Photo credit: Mat Wusche

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Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls... Science Dome is here.

After nine months of construction, the Science Dome will open in January to reveal an old-school planetarium with a mini-Omnimax twist.

In late 2012, Pierce College installed a 38-foot dome-shaped screen in a classroom at its Fort Steilacoom campus in Lakewood, effectively turning said classroom into something between a planetarium and a mini-Omnimax theater. They have dubbed this screen the Science Dome. But make no mistake - the future of the Science Dome involves much more than science. The Science Dome is designed to be a community resource for educators, for the public, and of course for many classes at Pierce College.

"It is similar to an old-school planetarium with a few exceptions," says Hillary Stephens, Science Dome coordinator. "The seating is uni-directional instead of around in a circle. It is tilted by about 10 degrees, which provides a more immersive feeling. The projection equipment is also digital so you can project anything up on the dome. It isn't 3D like 3D movies, but the shape of the screen gives a 3D effect without glasses!"

And, indeed, this dome is super cool. Armed with the dome controls on an iPad, she set out to demonstrate what the dome could do as I reclined in a comfy seat in the auditorium.

"The Dome can be used to see the stars from anywhere and anytime on Earth," says Stephens as we begin our galactic tour. "But it can do so much more than that too. You can view the sky from not just Earth but from anywhere - other planets, other stars etc. We also have the capability to ‘fly to' planets and view them in detail and zoom around their surfaces. We can also view interactive weather, oceanic, seismographic and other data on earth and some other planets through a Science on a Sphere program. The list of science applications goes on and on."

She shows off these capabilities as we view the stars from our current location before she whisks me off on a tour of Jupiter. The view circles around Jupiter. I feel like I'm flying. I inwardly vow to return and watch more Dome shows. She then switches tracks to demonstrate the Dome's ability to show movies, of which there are many, designed for such a dome with topics ranging from trips through the human body or through the Egyptian pyramids. We watch snippets of a film about the Northern Lights with an ethereal track that sounds like it's from a Cirque du Soleil show. The sound is surprisingly immersive and full.

"After the grand opening in January we will have regularly scheduled public nights where anyone can come and learn about what's in the sky tonight and come to shows on hot-topics in science," says Stephens. "The dome will also be open to K-12 groups and other groups with appointments."

The current plan is to have public nights a couple times each week. Public nights may be anything from planetarium shows to movies to interactive storytelling evenings and open mic nights. Public nights will have admission, but it will be cheap, likely around $6. It's worth it. The Dome is pretty awesome.

The Science Dome officially opens on January 19 with a ribbon cutting ceremony at 11 a.m. From 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. the same day, there will be hands-on exploration stations set up and Science Dome shows, namely Planetary Explorers - A Preschool Expedition and Mars: 4th Rock from the Sun. Reserve your seats online at Pierce College's website or at the door.


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