It began with a fanciful pact between two close highschool classmates at Thousand Island Central School that they would be on the first manned mission to Mars.
“Space exploration was moving fast,” explained Lisabeth Moore Kissner, Instructor and Director of the Northcountry Planetarium at SUNY Plattsburgh. “Once the U.S. went to the moon, installed satellites and clinched its dominion of space, it seemed that Mars colonization was just around the corner. I’ve always loved astronomy, and had a small telescope even as a kid.”
With the launch of the environmental movement in the 1970s, the U.S. space program was scaled back and the “hard sciences,” such as physics and chemistry, became less popular. Although Kissner and her friend continued to study science, (She focused on geology and he eventually went to the Naval Academy at Annapolis) they realized they would not be living on Mars.
Kissner, however, never lost her love of astronomy. “The ancient peoples looked up and so do we. Astronomy is one of the few things that is a shared global experience. I see the same celestial objects that everyone at my latitude sees—except at different times of the day. Once you get into space, you realize we are an isolated planet, and you don’t see international borders. Astronomy is a science that historically draws from all other sciences, and in return it supports them.”
Born in Avon, near Rochester, New York, Kissner moved to Cape Vincent, at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, when she was three. Her father was a water quality engineer and carpenter; her mother was a registered public health nurse. Both parents had STEM training (even though it wasn’t called that then) and embraced hand-on activities.
“It was always all science for me,” continued Kissner. “We were an outdoor family — boats, hunting, fishing – and we had to know the ‘mechanisms’ of those activities. I think everyone should be a scientist. It teaches critical thinking. Scientists were the first people who ‘bucked the system’ (in a world traditionally defined by religious doctrine). History has shown scientists can be both religious and scientific. Many of the great astronomers were.”
A proud alumnus of SUNY Plattsburgh, Kissner earned a B.S. in Geology with a concentration in Hydrology, along with a minor in Archeology in 1993. Continuing the long tradition of those who direct the Northcountry Planetarium, Kissner started working nights in the Astronomy Lab while working days in New York State Parks, including Point au Roche, where she did educational outreach. Along the way, she honed her skills in teach- ing science, specifically astronomy, by bringing a portable planetarium to local schools. She continued taking classes and eventually earned an M.S. in Liberal Studies with concentrations in Astronomy and Education.
The Northcountry Planetarium, located in Hudson Hall at SUNY Plattsburgh, was established in 1964, and is committed to promoting and providing quality astronomy education and space science awareness for on-campus students, local area schools and the community.
The planetarium is not an observatory. Its ceiling does not open to reveal the actual night sky to be observed with a telescope. Rather, the dome-shaped ceiling remains closed and acts as a hemispherical screen for a planetarium projector to accurately simulate the celestial phenomena of the night sky as well as their locations and natural motions. It can show the night sky at any season of the year, from any point on earth and at any time within a few thousand years (back in time or forward) to the present.
The 40-seat planetarium performs as a 360-degree multimedia sky theater allowing visitors to experience live, interactive programs as well as automated productions that feature realistic night skies and virtual journeys through our solar system and distance deep space phenomena. Its equipment features a ZKP3/B Skymaster optical-mechanical built in Jena, Germany by Carl Zeiss AG. This particular planetarium device projects over 7,000 individual stars through 6.3 magnitude as well as 25 deep space objects such as nebula, star clusters and galaxies. All celestial motion viewed in the sky, including those of solar system objects, are represented along with constellations overlays and reference grids, scales and lines needed for accurate positional measurements. Both the ZKP3/B optical-mechanical and the full-dome digital system can be configured to run either manually or automated as well as synched together to create an entirely hybrid system.
The planetarium also uses integrated auxiliary theatre components, provided by ASH Enterprises and ECCS. These include a theater-style 5.1 sound system, Canon inset video projector, Pleiades LED cove lighting, and the Universal Theater Control System.
Over the years, Kissner’s responsibilities at the Northcountry Planetarium and the Physics Department at SUNY Plattsburgh grew. She became a teaching assistant, then Associate Director and a full-time lecturer while Dr. Glenn Meyer, a specialist in Meteorology, was serving as the director of the planetarium. (He served for over three decades, stepping down in 2010).
Kissner wants her students, local teachers and the extended Plattsburgh community to see the relevance of astronomy and space science in society and in their own lives. For instance, she explained that many consumer products are the direct result of aerospace technology. Cell phones, medical procedures and diagnostics, remote sensing and optics were all further developed and improved as the result of space exploration. To this end, she gives astronomy-themed workshops to local teachers and offers an observational astronomy course as well as courses in planetarium operation and production to SUNY Plattsburgh students.
Through her directorship of the Northcountry Planetarium, Kissner is committed to teaching the next generation the skills to operate a contemporary hybrid planetarium system with digital multimedia technology. Continuing a tradition of more than five decades, she offers several service opportunities that contribute to general office operation, show production, mechanical maintenance, and the development of original art and show materials for stu- dents. These opportunities include part-time paid employment, an internship in which a student can earn college credits in a variety of academic areas and an independent study for a student in either planetarium operation or planetarium production. Since the tasks required to run a planetarium include operating an optical machine (light, lenses and electricity), connecting with computer applications, and knowing astronomy, the project is the epitome of a STEM activity.
“Science is a mental process, not a memorization of information,” Kissner emphasized. “It also has its own language, jargon you might say. Science and math, indeed, share a common language. And just like riding a bike, you must ‘do’ science. You cannot only read books about it. At some point, you have to actually ride.”
LADIES LOOKING UP
According to a March 2018 article by Ron Berger in Forbes magazine, girls and young women remain less likely to pursue education and careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). “I always participated in science growing up,” Kissner said. “If you look at the test scores, when girls decide to actually do science, they score as well as boys, sometimes better.”
Not surprisingly, the president of the Astronomy Club Kissner started and currently advises is Jordon McCloud, a female Environmental Studies major. “I was look- ing for something different,” said McCloud, “and I’ve always loved astronomy. I like to go outside and know what’s up there.” Another female student, Kayla Gladle, an Anthropology major, is the planetarium’s office manager and treasurer of the club. Kissner also proudly shows off the various badges regional Girl Scouts can earn follow- ing the Ladies Looking Up workshop series.
Since the Northcountry Planetarium’s grand re-opening in 2016 (after it, and Hudson Hall, underwent years of extensive renovations), Kissner and her students opened with 19 different programs geared to various members of the community in the first year of operation. Each show is one hour, includes a seasonal sky ephemeris, as well as a specific topic related to current events. Their most recent show, during Black History Month, was “Skywatchers of Africa,” which highlighted the diversity of African astronomy and the cultural uses of the sky that developed throughout history. On their current calendar, they have 33 booked events. You can find out more about the planetarium’s programs at www.Plattsburgh.edu/Academics/ Planetarium.
Moving forward, Kissner and her students hope to create their own shows for sale or trade. “I want it to be student run,” said Kissner. “This is one of the ways we’re tied to the community.”