DeKalb Middle School students peered into the night sky over Smithville Tuesday, despite being inside the old DeKalb Middle School gymnasium in the middle of the day.
Motlow College associate professor and STEM program director Billy Hix set up his 24-foot inflatable planetarium dome center court to give students a tour of the stars.
When students entered the planetarium, the experience simulated moving through the solar system and the universe. Hix controlled the projection inside the dome using special software on a laptop. The software simulates different dates, planets and solar systems.
Inside the dome, students immediately identified the constellations as they appear this time of year.
Superimposing images of Greek mythology over the constellations, Hix then introduced students to the most prominent stars. "Usually on a typical planetarium show, I will address some of the outstanding constellations for the current date and a lesson regarding the Greek stories that helped name the constellations."
As part of his tour of the night sky Tuesday, Hix zoomed in on Jupiter and its moon, Io. The atmospheric storm known as Jupiter’s great red spot, Hix said, is three times the size of Earth and Jupiter’s moon, Io, is the most geologically active object in the Solar System with more than 400 active volcanoes.
Further zooming in on the pitted face of Io, Hix explained that Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, has such an immense gravitational pull on Io that “it’s pulling its guts out.”
“Soon,” Hix said, Io will fall apart and form rings around Jupiter. However, “soon” is a relative term to astronomers. “Anything less than a million years,” he explained.
Hix also told the students how that our earth's sun is dying and Saturn's rings are disappearing.
Hix made his first STEM presentation in 1986 and added the planetarium about three years ago. Since that time, his nationally recognized program has traveled more than 5,000 miles to bring astronomy to more than 12,000 students in more than 140 schools.
“We target schools that are challenged by their students’ social economic makeup,” said Hix. “Due to that, I am honored to be the first person that takes them on a visit to a real planetarium and it is up to me to open their eyes to a much larger universe.”
“The planetarium is used to hopefully stimulate an excitement about learning in general, and even more so with regards to science or STEM areas.”
Hix, who has worked as an astronomer for NASA, said his passion for visiting schools to teach about space began back when he was in elementary school. "When I was in the fifth grade, we were about to land on the moon, and I was nuts about learning about space, stars, and the space program," said Hix. "At my little four-room country school no one else was interested and I wanted someone to speak to us about space."
The lack of space education in his youth drove Hix to reach out to others. "Well, my teacher told me that we were going to have a speaker, but the speaker was from CO-OP and he talked about fertilizer," added Hix. "I told my mom that I was going to visit schools and find people just like me, and we were going to learn about the space program."
Inspired by his experience as a student who was raised in a rural area, Hix desires to teach students who might not otherwise have any exposure to astronomy.
"I work hard to make sure to visit schools that are rural and higher poverty, but I will visit any school as I see myself as a hungry-to-learn little lad when I visit," he continued. "It is a passion that I have to share science and the night sky with our youth."
In February 2014, the American Astronomical Society awarded Hix with their Master Outreach Award, an award that is given to an individual who has made a difference in the understanding of astronomy science across the nation.