Beyond the Stars

Now in its 75th year, the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center reaches more students and curious science seekers than ever before — and not just in Chapel Hill.

by Mark Derewicz

Morehead launched the Duke Energy Science Night program to help schools host fun science events with resource kits containing hands-on activities and materials for up to 200 participants. (Photo: Morehead Planetarium and Science Center)

Think of a planetarium, and feel the awe and wonder of our place among the stars. That will never change. Certainly not at the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, where thousands of North Carolina citizens, mostly students, visit each year.

With its rich history and dedication to science for all, Morehead is a Chapel Hill hub worthy of commemoration, especially in its 75th year. (See “Science Project,” November/December 2020 Review.) But the people who take the most pride in Morehead are celebrating what it means beyond the Chapel Hill campus — and astronomy.

“We serve at least twice as many people off-site than we do at the planetarium in Chapel Hill,” said Todd Boyette, director of Morehead since 2006. “People are amazed when I tell them about the outreach programs we run.”

Morehead, after all, is the main way Carolina shares its love of science with people across the state.

Science for the masses

Morehead started the N.C. Science Festival in 2010, the nation’s first statewide, monthlong celebration of all things science and still one of the largest in the world. Its marquee event is the UNC Science Expo, with more than 100 booths on McCorkle Place, featuring Carolina students, researchers and community volunteers leading hands-on activities and games and science demonstrations.

From the frogs and rocks of North Carolina to Winemaking 101 and interstellar exploration, the festival offers events on so many themes in so many locations that it would be impossible to attend most of the more than 400 activities in 30 days each April. And that’s the point: saturation.

“Science for all” is a slogan Boyette and others use to convey that everyone — no matter where they live or their financial status — should have an opportunity to engage in science. The slogan also means everyone should be able to find something interesting and inspiring in the realm of science, as long as they have opportunities to find it.

During the first half of the COVID pandemic, when society was shut down, Morehead made as much of its programing as possible available online. This inspired Boyette’s team to send virtual reality headsets to the N.C. Children’s Hospital, where kids who were hospital bound could watch interstellar programming courtesy of the planetarium. The headsets are still in use.

Now, with a full-time staff of 42 and a volunteer force exceeding 100, Morehead reaches each of North Carolina’s 100 counties, with two mobile planetariums, each of which seats 24; science kits that educators in far-off locales use for community and school events; and presenters at school assemblies who show students the magic of science and explain it’s not magic at all — it’s science.

“It’s one thing to sit in a classroom and hear about science,” said Barbara Austin, the lone school counselor at Gates County Central Middle School, just this side of the Virginia border near the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Suffolk, Virginia. “It’s another to see what science is.

“We don’t have a lot of resources, and our students don’t have as many opportunities to go to science museums and planetariums, things that would help them relate to the world and get interested in science,” she said.

“Science for all” is a slogan the Planetarium uses to convey that everyone — no matter where they live or their financial status — should have an opportunity to engage in science.

 Morehead sends presenters to Gates County a few times during the academic year, as it does for other counties. Gates does not have the funds to pay Morehead, but the planetarium covers the costs through scholarships, as it does with some other schools around the state.

Gates County Public Schools also is home to the Saunders Science Scholars, a Morehead program of 28 students who had applied in 2018 as sixth graders to be part of the educational experiment to see whether further immersion in science would inspire them to pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in college and beyond.

These students, now high school sophomores and juniors, have been part of Morehead’s hands-on science experiments, activities and camps. Parents also partake, so they can reinforce and build on the science lessons at home. As the students matured and learned, they brought their new knowledge and ideas to elementary schools and their wider community through Morehead events. In the summers, the planetarium leads the Saunders Science Scholars on weeklong visits to colleges across North Carolina, meeting scientists and touring labs and campuses.

Crystal Harden ’93 (MAT, ’21 EdD), Morehead director of program and access initiatives, said the success of the program can be judged next year, when the first 14 Saunders Scholars will graduate from Gates County. Many plan to attend college. “We know some won’t pursue STEM after high school,” she said. “But we know some are looking into marine science, veterinary science, chemical engineering.”

Would these students not have pursued science without the Saunders program? Hard to say, but some students report the program has been meaningful.

Austin’s 17-year-old son, Ace, has always had a curiosity for how things work. As a Gates County elementary school student, he once made a lamp out of a Pepsi bottle for his Pepsi-loving principal. As a Saunders Scholar, his appreciation of engineering flourished. In high school he also took a shine to theater and was leaning toward pursuing a career in the performing arts. “He was worried he’d just sit behind a desk as an engineer,” Austin said. “But then he visited colleges as part of the Saunders program and talked to people in engineering departments to learn what sort of mechanical engineer he could be.”

Ace, who finished his junior year in June, was sold on engineering and now wants to attend N.C. A&T State University, which he said has the best program for him. N.C. State University is a close second, he said. “Morehead has done a great job to have a very positive impact on our students,” Austin said.

That’s Morehead’s main mission, Boyette said. “I’m very proud of this outreach because we’re the University of North Carolina for the people of North Carolina, not just for the people who can get to Chapel Hill,” he said. “I know Morehead has always been a point of pride for the University. I mean, we trained astronauts, and that was wonderful. But that was 50 years ago.”

Back at Mission Control

From the N.C. Science Festival to outreach programs and presentations in public schools across the state, Morehead is determined to give kids in North Carolina a closer look at science. (PHOTO: UNC Research/Megan Mendenhall)

Between 1960 and 1972, NASA used the Morehead Planetarium to train 62 astronauts, including Neil Armstrong — the first man to walk on the moon — and 10 of the other 11 Apollo mission astronauts. Each learned how to navigate in space using the stars right here in Chapel Hill. (See “A Star Maker and His Machinery,” November/December 2020 Review.)

Today, the planetarium honors this legacy through historical exhibits and tours throughout a newly renovated building that also showcases research from a rotating crop of Carolina scientists. Morehead teaches visitors fun ways to think about science through experiences in its Launch Lab, a large workspace where Morehead staffers guide students through hands-on activities, such as soldering and the use of tools. There’s a visitor’s center and gift shop with a research and science theme. And of course, there is the theater, where Morehead shows several different interstellar shows — many its staff created — to thousands of students each year and to anyone else on weekends, when the planetarium is open to the public. All told, Morehead hosts more than 100,000 visitors on-site each year.

Boyette’s team wants to do more.

With a restricted footprint in the historic building, Morehead is looking to the outdoors to expand its offerings. “We want people to be outside in general, and so we want to engage people outside,” Boyette said. “We have some space we can use, but we have to be thoughtful about it.”

A small tent, pitched behind the building, serves as a makeshift classroom. Severe weather, however, frequently destroys the canopy. “Let’s just say it’s not befitting a leading public university,” Boyette said. “We want to build out a structure to be a permanent outside classroom. From there, we want to connect programmatically with Coker Arboretum,” which is adjacent. Boyette is working with the N.C. Botanical Garden staff to make that happen.

Two of Morehead’s three vans are outfitted as mobile planetariums, which travel the state two or three times a week. “Those are our Earth-and-beyond-type vehicles,” said program director Crystal Harden ’93. “The third van is a science-on-the-street, engineering-type vehicle.”

Boyette also plans to improve the access to the sundial plaza, which is in the middle of the parking lot and bus route currently under reconstruction on the Franklin Street side of the building.

Morehead is positioning itself to become a national leader in access to STEM, not only through its boots-on-the-ground initiatives but through the Science for All Summit. In March, the planetarium hosted the second annual two-day summit, attracting about 200 educators, students and others mostly from North Carolina interested in increasing access to STEM fields for underserved communities.

In colleges nationwide, about 10 percent of STEM faculty are minorities. About 28 percent are women. In the past 30 years, there’s been an increase in Native Americans earning bachelor of science degrees but no rise in Native Americans earning graduate STEM degrees. Some of the reasons are attributed to how graduate students are trained at many universities, leading to Black and Latino students, for instance, leaving STEM graduate programs at higher rates than their white peers. That leads to fewer Black and Latino scientists available for faculty positions. The Science for All Summit is designed to discover the best ways for educators and administrators to inspire and help all students who are considering STEM fields for college and beyond.

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund sponsors the event. To expand the conference and attract national attendees — only two attendees this year were from out of state, coming from California and Pennsylvania — Harden said Morehead needs another major sponsor. That shouldn’t be difficult, given how far Morehead has come in the outreach business in 15 years.

Greatness thrust upon them

In 2007, a year into Boyette’s tenure as director, the University bequeathed two buses from the biology department to Morehead. They were tricked out with PCR machines (used to sequence DNA and detect viruses), gel electrophoresis contraptions (which separates molecules in DNA, RNA and proteins) and other biology-related goodies. Morehead, Boyette was told, would now be in charge of Carolina’s outreach to the state.

Planetarium director Todd Boyette said he wants Morehead to have programs within a 30-minute drive of every person in North Carolina. “This is our mission now, and we can do this because we have great partners — schools, funders, donors, nonprofits,” he said.

He hired Harden as outreach director in 2008, and she began working with North Carolina educators and school administrators to learn what they’d want from Morehead. She overhauled the buses accordingly and sent newly hired Morehead staffers with their accoutrements to schools across the state. That same year Morehead teamed with GlaxoSmithKline to launch GSK Science in the Summer, a free education program for kids. Morehead sent its educators to libraries and community centers, first to several sites in three counties and eventually 50 sites in 11 counties. The program operated for 16 years, serving more than 6,000 students. The buses were retired in 2017 and replaced by three high-top vans. Two of them are outfitted as the Morehead mobile planetariums, which travel the state two or three times a week. “Those are our Earth-and-beyond-type vehicles,” Harden said. “The third van is a science-on-the-street, engineering-type vehicle.”

Boyette said he wants Morehead to have programs within a 30-minute drive of every person in North Carolina. “This is our mission now, and we can do this because we have great partners — schools, funders, donors, nonprofits,” he said.

Boyette’s confidence is balanced by humility. “We know we don’t have all the answers for each school or community,” he said. Harden and Morehead staff lean on communities statewide to work with the planetarium to address their individual needs. Boyette said he encourages schools to email him at with ideas.

Morehead organizes the N.C. Science Festival, a monthlong statewide celebration of all things science. Its marquee event is the UNC Science Expo, with more than 100 booths on McCorkle Place, featuring Carolina students, researchers and community volunteers leading hands-on activities and games and science demonstrations. (PHOTO: UNC Research/Megan Mendenhall)

With input from educators and thanks to a big-name partner, Morehead launched the Duke Energy Science Night program in 2011 to help schools host fun science events with the help of resource kits containing 10 hands-on activities, a planning guide, instructions in English and Spanish and materials for up to 200 participants. Morehead staff provide instructional webinars, demonstration videos and other online resources to inform teachers and community leaders on how to guide students through the activities. This past academic year, more than 250 schools in 94 counties participated in the program.

Each activity aligns with K-5 science standards and is designed to excite kids about STEM and enhance existing science curriculums, said Morehead program assistant Kim Moore. Many activities lead to the creation of items such as stomp rockets and paper flying machines for kids to take home. The kit materials — things such as coffee filters, rubber bands, sticks and pipe cleaners — are the kinds of stuff parents and educators can easily replenish. The kits help kids understand the engineering behind boat buoyancy and air travel, the biology of blood capillaries and the science of fingerprints. They explore how to complete an electrical circuit by trying to transfer energy through different common materials. For 2024, in honor of the April 8 solar eclipse, the kits included Solar Eclipse Art — which helps kids learn what happens when the moon blocks the sun — and ultraviolet bracelets made of special beads so students learn about UV light, which is invisible to the naked eye.

Morehead has long been interested in what we can see, what we can measure with just our eyes and with instruments, and what we can create with our hands. But the planetarium also has been interested in what we can see with our minds — imagination. Space travel was just an idea at one point, but that idea inspired the use of science to turn imagination into reality — landing humans on the moon and spurring a technological revolution that landed super computers in our pockets, giving each of us access to nearly all human knowledge.

In the first half of the 20th century, John Motley Morehead (class of 1891) imagined Carolina as the home of a great planetarium, the first in the South. He and the University made it real. Now his namesake, in the form of a science center, wants to help all kids in North Carolina who want an opportunity to engage with science to have it, to see what they might imagine and make real — for themselves and maybe for all of us.

Mark Derewicz is a freelance writer and director of research and national news for UNC Health Communications and News Team.












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