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Enjoy San Joaquin Valley Living

Exploring Visalia's Planetarium & Science Center

Mar 24, 2016 11:00AM ● By Anonymous
Starry Nights
April 2016
Story by Fache Desrochers
Photos by Amber Smith

On the subject of the exquisite mysteries of the cosmos, few people are more captivatingly poetic than scientist Carl Sagan. And like most people who enjoy the gift of wisdom as well as great intelligence, Sagan understood something very important: Nothing is more nourishing and suitable for a young mind than knowledge, and plenty of it. And when it comes to youth instruction, the Tulare County Office of Education (TCOE) couldn’t agree more. The newly renovated and relocated Sam B. Peña Planetarium & Science Center is designed to captivate, educate and give local students an immersive introduction to the joys of knowledge and discovery. 

Every kid loves a good field trip, and a visit to a planetarium is an elementary school outing that most of us have a memory of, perhaps because it is a uniquely peaceful experience as far as field trips go. Reclining in the dark with your classmates, caught somewhere between the familiarity of a movie theater and the even deeper familiarity of lying supine and stargazing on a clear night – it’s an enjoyable and sensory way to absorb a presentation about space and the cosmos. 

But the Peña Planetarium doesn’t confine itself to space exploration alone. The new facility comprises two theaters: one features a 30-foot Spitz dome screen with a high-definition digital projection system optimized for imagined journeys through space and time, and one shows complementary science, astronomy and social studies presentations and will not be a theater for long. This second theater is slated to become the planetarium’s other half: an interactive science exhibit hall. And as a member of the noble quest to bring the wonders of science and space exploration to the public, the Peña Planetarium is in excellent company. 

“NASA has exhibits that organizations like ours can host or rent out for periods of time, and this new facility was built specifically with the goal to be able to accommodate things like that,” says Conan Palmer, Planetarium & Science Center supervisor. But whatever the exhibit, the Peña Planetarium celebrates the best in effective, interactive education that elevates and inspires visitors. “The focus and the priority of the planetarium is to create a great educational experience for the students in the county,” explains Palmer. “And our new location is designed to facilitate that goal: it’s more centrally-located in the county, it’s bigger and it has room for us to expand on our immersive education goals. It’s truly ideal.” 

Named after Sam B. Peña, a nationally recognized Visalia artist and long-instrumental member of the TCOE, the Peña Planetarium’s new facility is a multimedia educational experience that has been carefully designed to expand the classroom curriculum by providing an exciting and compelling learning opportunity for students. A variety of educational programs developed and produced by the TCOE Planetarium & Science Center staff are offered throughout the school year and are available to all students in Tulare County, including special education and preschool.  

“Our function is primarily to serve the school kids that visit us for field trips,” says Palmer. “But the planetarium is open to the public, too. We try to do two shows a month on average for non-students.” Tickets are sold ahead of time (they usually sell out), and Palmer says the organization is looking for ways to offer more shows to the clamoring community.

From stargazing to social studies, the Peña Planetarium is able to serve the Valley with the cultural and educational development that is the interactive museum. After all, lectures and textbooks are only a small part of what makes learning truly compelling. Sometimes, you just have to engage with the subject matter. Sometimes, you have to stop and count the stars. 

With his eternal knack for encapsulating the inspirational, Carl Sagan reminds us, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” And happily for young Valley students and older space enthusiasts alike, that something can be found right in the heart
of the community, under one very special domed roof.  

Sam B. Peña Planetarium

11535 Ave 264, Visalia

(559) 733-6433