A lecture in a planetarium: Sac State’s $91 million science complex earns high marks

With 15 minutes left of his astronomy class Monday, Sacramento State professor Kyle Watters’ walked to the back of the room.

“Back here is my command station,” he said. “Here, let’s show some Hornet pride.”

The screen that extended up over the students’ heads turned green. A collective “Oooh” filled the room.

The screen then turned black, with an image of the Milky Way galaxy slowly coming into focus. The projection zoomed in on Earth, which slowly rotated until North America came into view. It then zoomed in further, into California, then Sacramento, then the site of the brand new planetarium on Sacramento State’s campus.

“You see that little circle over there?” Watters said. “That’s where you’re sitting.”

The students were taking their first day of classes in the planetarium attached to Sacramento States’ new science complex. Open primarily for students, but also to the public on designated days, the 40-foot tall, 120-seat planetarium is the first digital planetarium in the Sacramento area.

The planetarium will hold its first round of public shows on the weekend of September 20, said Watters, who is both an astronomy professor and the planetarium’s director. The university’s plan is to hold one weekend of public shows every month. Children under 12 and students will be able to watch for free, and tickets for everyone else – which will be sold through the Hornet ticket office – will be $5.

Watters said the planetarium will also be open to field trips for K-12 students for free.

As for his classes, Watters said he is most excited using the planetarium “to get students interested in science and astronomy who might not otherwise be exposed to it.”

“It will be much easier to keep people awake and interested when they feel like they’re going to space and watching a star be born,” he said. Though, on Monday, he still had to pause in the middle of his lecture to address some sleepy students.

“It’s 1 O’clock, we’re in a dark room, and the seats are comfy,” he said. “Please don’t fall asleep.”

Watters also believes that the planetarium can help students more quickly understand and retain the material they’re learning.

“Historically, we have a lecture hall, there’s a projector, and we show images. The thing we’ll really be able to do is to show videos and simulations of astronomical phenomena,” he said. “This kind of visual, interactive learning is something that will help with difficult concepts.”

The planetarium is just one aspect of the entire science complex. Boasting an observatory, 20 classroom labs, 10 research labs, one hybrid lab and three lecture halls, the complex has been a long time coming.

Tanya Nunez, the project manager of Sacramento State’s facilities, said the university has wanted to build the complex since the mid-2000s, but the recession hit, and the project was put on hold. Sacramento State eventually got funding – including its largest-ever donation of $9 million – and broke ground for the complex in 2017.

While largely catering to Sacramento State’s growing population of STEM majors, it also offers space that non-STEM majors can use.

Fabian Jimenez, a fourth-year construction management major, took a break from his classes Monday afternoon at a cushioned bench on the second floor of the complex. He said that though he didn’t have any classes in the complex, “I’m here because all the incoming freshmen are trying to settle in and scavenging for study spots and the library is packed.”

“It’s nice to be here,” he said, pointing to an outlet attached to the bottom of the bench diagonally across from him.

The outlet is one of the “Easter eggs” that Nunez said she hopes will attract more than just STEM majors to the complex.

“I really look forward to the students’ reactions, seeing people enjoy the little spaces, finding the little Easter eggs that were done to help people use the building,” she said. “Every floor has some sort of unprogrammed, informal space, where students can spend their whole day there, all their meals, sit there, study, eat lunch.”

“I look forward to all the discoveries,” she said.

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Elaine Chen, from the University of Chicago, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in the Bay Area and later in Beijing, China.