Carrying the Universe and not Breaking Your Back
(or the effects of using the new 22 foot Super-Dome Portable Starlab)

Written by John T. Meader

Presented as a workshop at MAPS 1998 in Wheeling, WV
Northern Stars Planetarium, Fairfield, ME.

In 1996 my wife and I were invited by Learning Technologies, Inc. to give a talk about using a Starlab portable planetarium as a small business. During dinner on the night of our talk, we learned that Learning Tech. was creating a prototype of a 22 foot (6.7m) portable dome. They were very interested in our response to this development. Would we be interested in one? How would it be used? Where? Etc.? To say the least the idea intrigued us.

On the drive home we talked about the potential impact such a dome would have on our business. Of course we had many questions. First, there were the technical questions: How many children could it comfortably hold? Would the stars really be bright enough? Would there be a big focus problem with our peripheral projectors when changing from the small dome to the big dome and back again. How would we carry it? After all, it weighs nearly 100 pounds!

Secondly there were the questions that could not be answered until we actually took it out to the schools. Would teachers like it? How would group dynamics change going from groups of 25-30 students in the standard dome to groups of 60 or more students in the larger dome? What should we charge? Would it increase revenues?

To make a long story short, we bought the prototype. We received the dome in September 1996. The first questions were easy to answer as soon as we started using the dome. The dome could easily hold 60 to 70 children, and they fit more comfortably than thirty did in the smaller 16 foot (4.8m) dome. The stars are slightly dimmer, but not substantially; once your eyes are dark adapted the star field is very good. The response from teachers and colleagues who are familiar with the star field as projected on the smaller dome have consistently said that it is an improvement going to the bigger dome simply because of the scale increase and that the brightness variation is hardly noticeable.

Focus problems had been a concern for us because of the number of peripheral projectors we use. We have more than twenty special effect projectors in our portable as well as four Ektagraphic slide projectors. To our relief, we found that we only needed to refocus the four slide projectors and one special effects projector when we changed domes. All the rest maintain focus regardless of which dome we use.

Carrying the large dome by hand is definitely unmanageable, so to move it around without breaking my back, I use a hand-truck. This makes it very easy to handle, even on stairs.

The answers to the second set of questions came more slowly. These answers grew out of the continued use of the dome over the first several months. Whether the teachers and principals would like it worried us at first. That is because it worried them. Many of our regular clients were hesitant to try the big dome. They liked the presentations we had been giving them in the small dome. They were afraid they might lose some personal interaction and have increased discipline problems when two or three classes in the planetarium at the same time. We were able to talk many of our "regulars" into trying it. Many of them gave me a quizzical look as we entered the big dome for the first time, but when the show was over, they were converted. To this day every school that has tried the bigger dome has said they will never go back to the small dome. In their own words it is "impressive," "more comfortable," and "the kids seem to behave better, despite the larger number of students". In other words, the teachers love it!

Surprisingly the group dynamics have not been a major problem. We limit group size to between 60 and 70 students, preferably not more than three classes at a time. With this number of students there is still enough open space on the floor for a grown man to lie flat on his back! We try to seat the kids class by class, putting one class and its teacher on one side of the dome and then the other class and its teacher on the other side of the dome. If there's a third class, it goes in between the first two in the front or south side of the dome. With this configuration each teacher has her class within easy ear shot. The students are more easily controlled when the classes are not jumbled together. Another reason discipline seems to be less of a problem, I think, is because--even with the greater number of students--everyone has a larger personal space. Nobody is crammed in, elbow to elbow, as they often are in the smaller dome.

We decided that our fee structure should be designed to make choosing the big dome attractive to schools. With our small dome we have a descending fee structure where the first show in a day is $70.00, the second is $65.00, the third is $60.00, and all the rest for that day are $55.00 each*. The pricing we came up with for the big dome is $130.00 for the first show, $105.00 for the second, and all the rest are $100.00 each for that day. When figured on a per head basis the schools certainly save money with the big dome, but what's interesting is that we can actually make more money with the big dome too! Now that's a win-win situation.

With the small dome we can do five shows per day, that's $305.00*. With the large dome we can only do four shows per day. The shows are actually the same length as in the smaller dome, but it takes longer getting kids in and out of the bigger dome because of the greater number of students. The fee for doing four shows per day with the big dome is $430.00*. That means more pay for doing fewer shows! This also has the added bonus of opening up our calendar for more schools to schedule than ever before, and that also increases revenues. Our dreaded waiting list has all but disappeared. So the bottom line is that schools get the same great shows for a lower cost per student, we earn more money for less work, and we get to serve more schools than ever before.

Doing less shows per year is a really good thing when you do all those shows yourself. It really helps reduce the stresses that cause burnout. It really shows up when you simply look at the numbers of the last four years, We've decreased the number of shows and yet significantly increased attendance:

School Year:
Number of Shows Given:
(Before Super-Dome)

604 shows
588 shows
(After Super-Dome added)

564 shows
441 shows
1(We were closed for the month of November.)

In conclusion, the Super dome has been a great addition to our business. We do not send both domes out to schools simultaneously; instead, schools pick the dome that best fits their particular needs. Many small schools in Maine do not have gymnasiums, which is the type of space needed for the Super dome. So our small dome still gets much use. During the first year we had both domes ('96-'97) we did only 140 shows with the big dome compared to 424 with the small dome. This past year ('97-'98) the big dome has certainly gained a lot of acceptance as it's total use has increased to 210 shows compared to 231 with the small dome. While the large dome's use is slightly less than 50% of the total number of shows given, the large dome's total attendance this year has been 11,970 students. That's 65% of the total attendance for the year!

Our attendance is the best it's ever been. We are servicing more schools than ever. I'm doing less shows, that helps keep me fresh and energetic. We charge less, which is good for the schools, and we earn more revenues. While it might be difficult to make a go of it with only a large dome, it has been a great new addition to our business--Northern Stars Planetarium.


*The prices quoted are 1998 prices.



Northern Stars Planetarium and Educational Services,
Fairfield, ME 04937
(207) 453-7668

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