West Virginia students visit Anderson Hancock Planetarium

Nearly 60 bright little faces walked single-file into the Anderson Hancock Planetarium Wednesday morning and sat as quietly as 6- and 7-year-old children could sit.

Dr. Ann Bragg, Director of the Planetarium, welcomed the four classes of kindergartners from Williamstown (W.Va.) Elementary School and explained that it was about to get dark. Before offering presentations to younger audiences, Bragg had studied how other planetariums modified the way they taught children to make sure the children didn't become scared, overwhelmed or disinterested.

Before ditching the lights completely, she changed the color of the dome to blue, purple, red and green. Judging by the oohs and ahs coming from the children, the show could have ended there but Bragg had much greater images in store for the budding young scientists.

One of them, Lauren Sexton, 6, had never visited a planetarium and was excited about her class' field trip. "I want to see all of this; this whole thing," she said. "This is where you see stars and planets all the time. And I got to ride the bus."

When the night sky over Marietta and Williamstown was projected onto the 40-foot dome, the children began pointing out stars and laughing. "Do any of you know how to find the Big Dipper," asked Bragg.

"It's right there," called out one of the boys.

Confirming the boy's story, Bragg produced a red laser pointer to map out the Big Dipper, which further charged the group with enthusiasm and curiosity. She later pointed to a cluster of stars and asked if anyone in the group could identify them.

"That's Orion," said Mick Pyles, 6. Bragg remarked that one student knew the answer. Pyles proudly waved his raised arm in the darkened theater and said, "Um, that was me. I knew it was Orion."

At the end of the presentation, Bragg displayed all of the planets in the solar system, showing the children the relative sizes of each, compared to the size of the sun. As the last of the planets cleared off the dome, Bragg said she would turn on some lights just in case students had a few questions they'd like to ask.

The re-lit room revealed nearly all of the little hands were waving over the seats. Bragg answered at least one question from every child whose hand was raised and encouraged the children to return with their families to the planetarium for upcoming free community events.

"This is phenomenal," said kindergarten teacher Patty Yazombek. "What an experience for these kids."