Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.

Why the Arlington Planetarium matters more than ever

(Evy Mages)
Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.
Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Arlington Planetarium each year teaches people about the planets, the stars, celestial mechanics, physics and concepts of time. Ironically, the planetarium itself has run out of time.

The Friends of Arlington's David M. Brown Planetarium is trying to save and refurbish the building. The old cosmic theater, where tens of thousands of students first fell in love with millions of stars in the heavens, confronts a daunting deadline. The group needs to raise $241,000 by Dec. 31, the first leg of a $402,000 goal set by the Arlington County School Board. So far, it has about $123,000.

Back in the halcyon days of moon shots, John Glenn godspeeding around Earth and Neil Armstrong stepping up for mankind, schools all over the country built planetariums. Arlington's was constructed 40 years ago, and it shows its age.

Arlington students obtain a top-quality education, and the student population in the county brims with diversity and vibrancy. But it's this very population that makes the possibility of losing this key facility so dispiriting.

To understand what lies ahead, one must examine stark statistics from higher education and the sciences. There are fissures along ethnic and racial lines: The American Institute of Physics (AIP) examined census data and found that between 1998 and 2008, Hispanic Americans earned more college bachelor degrees. The number went from 78,000 to 131,000, a nearly 70 percent increase. In 2008, about 22,000 Hispanic Americans earned bachelor's degrees in business and some 10,000 earned bachelor's degrees in education.

But in 2008, only 229 Hispanic Americans earned bachelor's degrees in physics. And just 192 graduated in the geosciences.

AIP statistics compiled for African Americans are just as troubling. Of the 760 universities that award physics degrees, 495 did not award any to an African American student in the past year. Zip. Zero. Zilch.

In fact, over three decades - AIP statistics kept from 1977 through 2006 - only 288 African Americans earned doctorates in physics in the United States. (Overall, more than 35,000 physics doctorates were awarded in that time.) That's a disgracefully low number considering that African Americans comprise almost 13 percent of the population.

My point: Interest in science doesn't start in college. It begins in elementary, middle and high school.

It begins when kids discover their cosmic love in places such as the Arlington Planetarium and the National Air and Space Museum. Collegiate English and history majors rarely change direction toward science. A love of science must be nurtured early on.

At its height, the planetarium notched 23,000 student visits annually, mostly from kindergarten through fifth grade. Currently, the planetarium operates part-time - getting visits from far fewer students - generally kindergarten through second grade. And, of course, the occasional high school astronomy class.

Arlington must keep and refurbish its planetarium, and the school board has a duty to help resolve the ethnic and racial differential in the sciences. The task given to the grass-roots group Friends of the Arlington's planetarium - raising $402,000 in only one year - is laughingly impossible. The school board must extend the deadline.

The Arlington County School Board has a chance to become a leader in a national movement, save a planetarium and show off a gem - at no capital cost whatsoever. The Friends of Arlington Planetarium wants to pay for it. Give the group a little time - and the diverse students of Arlington will get more chances to fall in love with science.

Blaine Friedlander writes the Sky Watch column in The Post.

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