My 5-year-old daughter looked up at the constellations of the autumn sky and let out a big "Whoa."
No, we weren't in our backyard or on a camping trip, for I know very little about stars, planets or constellations. We were sitting in a planetarium at the Science Center of Pinellas County just west of Tyrone Square Mall. The Science Center has just spent $200,000 to buy and install a MediaGlobe full color digital sky view planetarium projector. This is the first MediaGlobe in use in the state and only the third in the country. It updates the Science Center by light years as it retires its former planetarium projection system, which has been in use since 1971.
The digital capabilities of the machine allow the Milky Way with its stars, sun, planets and moons to be created on the dome of the Science Center's 30-seat round planetarium. It can show the sky as it appears now or thousands of years in the past or future.
"The machine is so versatile we can put in different programs, we can make our own programs, we can use it to teach even different subject matters," said Susan Gordon, executive director of the Science Center.
The program my 3-year-old and 5-year-old daughters previewed with me lasted 16 minutes and kept them both interested to the last minute. The narrated show connected the lines between constellations and showed clips of the first moon landing and comments by President John F. Kennedy. It re-enacted how the moon was created and talked about how the moon controls water movements and even some animal eating habits. We saw all nine planets on the ceiling and learned some interesting, easy to grasp facts about them.
I never knew Europa, a moon of Jupiter has an underground ocean and could be home to marine life similar to Earth's. And we got a solid count that 12 astronauts have walked on the moon, leaving footprints that remain today.
The new planetarium is just one way the 43-year-old Science Center is updating itself. What started in William Guild's garage as a way to help neighborhood children on their science projects has come a long way. The 25,500-square-foot building sits off 22nd Avenue N on 7 acres. It hosts many school children but is also open to the public weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. And starting Dec. 7 the center will be open on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at a cost of $5 a person. Call ahead if you have a large group and you can usually get a discount.
The Science Center also has a room full of live animals, including prairie dogs, an owl, snakes, a tarantula, ferrets and a turtle. Hamlet, the 140-pound pot bellied pig, has a cozy corral in the center's lobby but also roams the courtyard and is very patient with little hands scrambling to pet her.
"I thought she would be pokey, but she wasn't that pokey," my 3-year-old recounted to her father several days after her encounter with the pig.
Thanks to a recent $100,000 grant, the Science Center has a new 600-gallon touch tank in its Marine Life Room holding horseshoe crabs, starfish, lobster, a baby stingray and more saltwater sea life. There are also four large tanks with fish from different marine habitats. Next to the Marine Life Room, the Laser Odyssey Theater features laser light animation set to music.
The center also houses a computer center, chemistry lab, microscope lab, physics and magnets lab, rain forest classroom, archaeology lab, observatory, photography lab and, of course, a gift shop with pretty cool stuff.
Behind the Science Center sits a re-created 16th century American Indian village similar to what existed in the Tampa Bay area when the first Spanish contact occurred in the early 1500s. It includes a chief's mound and temple, a cook's hut, an Indian garden and a realistic archaeological excavation site.
More than 22,000 school students, mostly from kindergarten to fifth grade, visit the center a year. It also offers summer camps and birthday parties with a variety of science themes from rocket building to an animal or marine life show. There are preschool science classes for kids ages 2, 3 and 4 on Thursday mornings from 9 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. They cost $6 per parent-and-child team and cover topics such as warm-blooded and cold-blooded animals, sea life and the senses.
Over the holidays the Science Center is offering teaching sessions for kids age 7 and up. They can come with an adult or be dropped off for one or more sessions, which last 45 minutes to an hour. Each session costs $4 or they can stay the day from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. for $22. (You provide a bag lunch.) Adults are also welcome to join the sessions, which include titles such as: "Bugs, Good, Bad and Ugly," "Wonders of the Night Sky," "Gators and Snakes," "Animals of Africa" and "Kitchen Chemistry."
The Science Center is supported financially with revenue from program, grants and donations and gifts from corporations, organizations and individuals.
The center is certainly smaller than MOSI across the bridge in Tampa and not something you could spend a whole day touring. But considering it's free during the week and $5 a person on Saturdays, it makes a fun and educational outing with your kids for at least an hour or two.
And by the way, if you have a child who is interested in constellations or you want to pique their interest, I suggest a great book called The Glow In The Dark Night Sky Book by Clint Hatchett and published by Random House. It shows the sky's star patterns at different times of the year with one page of just stars and the next of the same stars with the constellations drawn over them. It glows in the dark, which is fun in a kid's bedroom and helpful if you take it outside to compare to the real night sky.
You can reach the Science Center of Pinellas County at 384-0027.
_ You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at Oliviacharaol.com; or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.