SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - The excitement begins building when people arrive at Slippery Rock University's Planetarium. Lights dim. Stargazers settle into reclined seats to gaze at the dome overhead, becoming virtual astronauts on a tour of the celestial bodies.
Captivating the audience with weekly Planetarium shows are SRU students who said they are thankful for the education that has enabled them to become night sky explorers, video technicians and cosmos presentation artists.
"As a computer science major, it [producing a planetarium show] has really helped me grow by giving me an outlet; a goal to achieve," said Daniel Arnett of Butler, lead presenter of the Planetarium shows that will be presented at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through spring semester. "Dr. [Krishna] Mukherjee [assistant professor of physics and pre-engineering] puts on the pressure to make the best shows possible, and it helps teach the importance of project deadlines and time management."
"These shows are especially tricky because they're a combination of technical knowledge and artistic vision. They help me refine my own abilities as an engineer, an artist and as a speaker," Arnett said. "I am solving problems that have never been solved before and in ways that have never been attempted, all because SRU gives students all the resources we need to thrive."
Offering technical support are Noah Shinn, a computer science major from West Grove, and Adam Riddle, a computer science, history and philosophy major from Slippery Rock. Shinn and Riddle control which videos project onto the dome and create some of the videos for the display.
"We love giving shows and never miss an opportunity to stimulate our fellow students' minds," Riddle said. "I view my position as a second in command, which often means keeping the visionary tornado - that is Dan - down to earth," he said. "I also create and edit videos for use during shows."
Riddle said he has dedicated countless hours leaning the computer programs needed to run the Planetarium, which complements his classroom experience.
"Working at the Planetarium has encouraged me to look to the cutting edge of technology," he said. "We really try to look to the future. I have also gained great confidence in not only public speaking, but in knowing that even as a student, I can accomplish things that have never been done."
Riddle said the Planetarium has given him an opportunity to study a variety of subjects beyond astronomy and physics.
"We have the ability to play any video, whether it is straight off the Internet or the ones we edit," he said. "Many of our shows already incorporate various elements of philosophy and computer science, as well as other themes such as where we came from, the effect music and art can have on a person and where we are going as a species," he said.
Later this semester, Riddle said, he plans to make a video with the theme of history and add to his collection of philosophical videos.
"The Planetarium is an exciting and fun way to help teach any subject," he said.
Arnett said the team starts the display with a light show, followed by a dome-wide overlay of the Zodiac. The show is educational and true to humanity's understanding of the cosmos. Attendees learn how to identify their Zodiac and constellations through features called "Lights of Orion," "Exoplanets," and "We Choose Space."
"We then show our pick of some of the best videos the Internet has to offer," he said.
Students show YouTube clips - some about space, some that are just funny. They include music videos featuring scenes under the ocean and in outer space.
Arnett said they save the best for last.
"We explore the universe and our place in it with videos that fill the audiences' field of vision across the entire dome screen," he said. "We fly from the Slippery Rock University campus all the way to the other side of the universe and back. To wrap things up we play music videos that get the whole of Vincent Science Center moving. The shows are so much fun that we have people coming back week after week, and some even wanting to get involved in making their own shows. It's the best 'cheap date' on campus."
Arnett said his educational odyssey at SRU began at age 14. His parents enrolled him in Space Camp, where he met Mukherjee and first heard about galaxies and black holes.
"Now my peers and I are the ones who help teach the community about space," he said.
Arnett said he would present what he has learned though his Planetarium involvement at the 2014 Summit for Immersive Entertaining Environments.
"I am passionate about science, technology and videography and will continue learning and making space-related productions in my free time as much as I can," he said.
Shinn, a freshman, said he has learned a lot from professors and upperclassmen Arnett and Riddle.
"In the Planetarium I have learned not only how to use these complex programs, but also I have learned about public speaking," he said. "Dan always talks about how in the beginning his presentations were not very good and that he slowly got better with practice."
"Since the first day I saw a light show in the planetarium I have had an urge to make one myself," he said. "Originally the difficulty turned me away from it, but recently I decided that a great way to progress is to take on difficult challenges. I have been researching a lot and soon I will be spending the tedious hours required to make my own light show."
Shinn said he plans to move into drone research at SRU.
"By the time I am a senior I hope to be going to conferences and showing off the drone and newer technology just like Dan does," he said. "From the Planetarium I have grown to not just be a student who attends class and does homework, but, rather a student that is involved with things I find fun and things that will further my career in the long run."
The 40-year-old Planetarium offers control electronics and a modern audio system including wireless microphones. The projector presents the relative position and brightness of thousands of stars and planets. Forty-nine hi-back chairs, mounted in reclining positions, ease viewing.
Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.