New College students tackle daunting projects at the Bishop Planetarium.

Stars in the Skies

The lights dim in Bishop Planetarium and a figure appears on the dome, a man with a white moon on his forehead, standing before a dark sky. He is Black God, a creator figure in Navajo mythology.

He begins placing stars in the sky – North Fire, now commonly called Polaris, then others that make up Revolving Man and Revolving Woman, parts of the constellations Ursa Minor and Cassopeia.

Coyote, the trickster in Navajo myth, scatters the other stars to the sky before they are fully lit. The show, from start to finish, is the creation of New College students Nova Jones and Maia Owen, who were volunteer interns at South Florida Museum in Bradenton.

Their January independent study project was in ethnoastronomy, bringing the Navajo mythology to life, from their anthropology studies to the planetarium screens. Gabrielle Vail, visiting assistant professor of international and area studies — and a New College alumnus — worked with the museum to develop several projects for students.

Brie Rosenbloom researched the museum’s collection of hand fans, which date to the 1850s, and prepared materials for a May exhibition. Flannery French worked on an exhibit of Japanese dolls, which also will be displayed in May. Spencer Hills delved into the Hilliard photo collection, deciphering inscriptions on the amateuranthropologists’ images of South and Central America and digitizing a research journal.

And like Jones and Owen, Garrett Murto created a separate planetarium show on Incan myths. All are anthropology students, though the ethnoastronomy work is perhaps the most unusual.

And in true New College form, the students rose to a challenge: They had to master new software, called Digistar, that even planetarium director Jeff Rodgers had yet to use. “I said, ‘Figure it out and teach me.’ And they did, to a really remarkable extent,” Rodgers said.

To produce their 10-minute shows, they first had to research the history and legends of the stars, then determine how they aligned in constellations and where to place them in the sky. They learned to use Stellarium, an open-source planetarium program, as well as Digistar and its plug-in programs.

They put in nearly 100 hours on the project. They came away impressed with what they learned about the culture, and about their own capabilities. “I had worked in Mayan culture before,” Jones said. “It’s so interesting to go back and look at the codices and put everything together in this whole new context.”

“The planetarium dome is a very imposing screen and for me to see a creation of my own on that screen was an awesome effect,” Murto said. “As a first-year student, it’s exciting to be getting involved in the community with a project like this,” Owen added. This spring, the students are recording their live narration, which will be saved with the show.

Digistar is in use in 25 planetariums nationwide, Rodgers said, and the facilities have plans to share their locally-produced shows, allowing the students to become teachers for a national audience.

Rodgers, also director of education at the museum, said their work is clearly at that level. “It’s scholarly, there’s good research behind it, and we feel very comfortable putting it out there with the Bishop Planetarium name on it,” he said.

And while all three students still have studies to complete, their work at the museum already had paid off. “We invited them all back, and told them there may even be jobs for them,” Rodgers said. “Isn’t that what every college student wants to hear?”