STEM Advantage: Digital Universe

By Robert Marshall, Educator, Carnegie Science Center

In college, while earning my undergraduate astronomy degree, I experienced firsthand the importance of STEM education. I am a presenter for the Buhl Planetarium at Carnegie Science Center and was educating the public every day, using a simulated night sky reflected off a gigantic dome. With a brand new digital projection system, I had the capability to leave Earth and navigate the three-dimensional universe.

Once the museum closed I was free to play.

My technological exploration had led to real scientific learning. I came to the understanding of how the universe was assembled: planets, stars, galaxies, cosmos. Furthermore, I familiarized myself with incomprehensible scale: astronomical units, light-years and giga parsecs. You cannot touch the Milky Way, but its billions of stars, all mapped using real astronomical data, were at my fingertips. This allowed me to be the creator of my own learning curve. I was inspired. I became excited and motivated for class. Among my classmates, I felt I had a distinct advantage because of Digital Universe. Even though everyone was being taught the same concepts during lecture, I was, on my own time, interacting with, and visualizing, these concepts in a digital laboratory. I was making unique connections between two parallel universes.


Credit: Jim Judkis

Today, most of the American education system recognizes the importance of STEM education. “How do we know it is working?” I recently asked a STEM education researcher. “Reach into your pocket,” he replied. Dr. Brad McClain from the University of Denver was referring to the placement of my cellphone. In other words, the outcome might be quantitatively difficult to measure but we can see the results: technological creations integrated all around us — like Digital Universe. Today’s smartphones are the result of the collaboration of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And there are dozens of free applications that allow users to interact with the night sky by holding their phone up to label stars, planets, even satellites. I can only image that, one day, everyone will have a Digital Universe application, just like the one that changed my life, on their phone that can be carried around in their pocket.

Classroom Discussion

  • Where is the closest planetarium to you? Does it have a digital system?
  • What must a phone know in order to show its user the proper position of celestial objects? For instance, what about your location on Earth? Time?