Planetarium professionals teach interactively to achieve their goals

By Sophie Papavizas and Melissa Ballard - January 2016


Plummer, J. D., & Small, K. J. (2013). Informal science educators' pedagogical choices and goals for learners: The case of planetarium professionals. Astronomy Education Review, 12(1). doi:10.3847/AER2013004

Technology has dramatically changed learning opportunities in planetaria. In this study, Plummer and Small examined planetarium professionals’ goals for their audiences and their beliefs about learning in a planetarium. The authors also sought to understand what professional opportunities and influences contribute to planetarium professionals’ pedagogical beliefs and practices.

Plummer and Small note that the planetarium field has recently experienced major changes in technology, with corresponding potential changes in the mode of audience engagement. Full-dome theaters have rapidly replaced traditional projection systems. The commercial programs that have emerged for this new technology tend to offer passive, movie-like entertainment for audiences, in contrast to active facilitation by planetarium professionals.

Research Design 

In their interviews with planetarium professionals, Plummer and Small investigated the following research questions:

  1. How do planetarium professionals’ goals for visitors compare to goals voiced by other informal science educators, represented in science education policy documents, and found in current models of learning?
  2. How can their beliefs about learning environments be characterized in relationship to theories of learning?
  3. What professional opportunities do these professionals draw on that influence their beliefs about learning environments?

The researchers conducted interviews of 36 planetarium professionals: planetarium directors, operators, and vendors working in universities, schools, museums and science centers, and planetarium companies. Participants had worked in the field for an average of 20.4 years, and 56 percent had more than 15 years of experience. Volunteer participants were recruited for the study at two regional planetarium professional association meetings. Interviews were conducted by phone and in person.

The researchers also conducted four case studies in order to further examine the variety in institutional settings, educational backgrounds, and prior professional experiences of planetarium professions.

Research Findings 

The majority of planetarium professionals in this study reported that their goals for both general audiences and children were developing interest and engagement (77 percent) and teaching content knowledge (73 percent). Only 13 percent had the goal of going beyond content knowledge or “not just [the] facts” for elementary-aged audiences. Also for elementary-aged audiences, 43 percent of professionals said it was important to teach state or national standards. No participants thought entertainment was a goal for elementary students, although 21 percent felt it was a goal for general audiences.

Most study participants accessed multiple professional development opportunities through conferences, university courses, and workshops. However, participants did not cite these external professional development opportunities as sources they drew on to improve their pedagogical practices. Rather, they cited on-the-job experiences (42 percent), working with their own audiences (38 percent), and drawing from personal interest and beliefs (38 percent). To identify new approaches to audience interaction, 54 percent of participants cited informal exchanges with other practitioners as influential, and 42 percent cited conferences as an important resource.

Participants’ descriptions of their pedagogical practice and the planetarium learning environment indicated that they often used an interactive approach to engage audiences. They indicated that content was presented through multiple modalities, providing visual, kinetic, and tactile experiences. Many mentioned the importance of social interaction, either among audience members or between themselves and audience members.

Implications for Practice

The passive learning experiences offered by commercial programs for full-dome projectors seems to be in conflict with planetarium professionals’ beliefs about planetarium learning, as the findings indicate that planetarium professionals value interactive teaching as a means to achieve their goal of increased science interest and learning.

Like other informal science educators (Tran & King, 2007), planetarium professionals do not cite a common or recognized knowledge base as a major source of pedagogical knowledge. This finding highlights a need for increasing access to professional development platforms or venues where planetarium professionals could encounter current research in astronomy and space science education, informal science education, and the learning sciences.


Tran, L., & King, H. (2007). The professionalization of museum educators: The case of science museums. Museum Management and Curatorship, 22(2), 131–149.