© 2011 Idaho Press-Tribune

CALDWELL — Amy Truksa was a fourth-grader on a field trip from Washington Elementary School the first time she visited the planetarium at The College of Idaho in 1976.

Her father, physics professor Gary Strine, operated the planetarium. Controlling the pinpoint projections of light with a panel of dials and switches, he narrated the movements of stars and constellations across the domed ceiling.

Truksa was awestruck looking up into the black sky sprinkled with starlight.

“I remember seeing the little dipper for the first time. I’d seen the big dipper before, but the little dipper was harder to recognize. Having it pointed out to me, I said, ‘Ahhh! That’s what it’s like,” Truksa said.

When Truksa returned to the planetarium 24 years later, she was no longer sitting in the audience.

After teaching science at the Caldwell alternative school, Truksa was hired by The College of Idaho in 2000 as the director of Whittenberger Planetarium.

As she sat behind the console of the original Spitz A3P projector that the college installed in 1969, Truksa remembered the awe she felt as a little girl.

She quickly learned to turn that awe into understanding.

“It’s hard to teach a group of people when you’re standing behind them in the dark. But when you hear them say, ‘Ahhh!’ that’s really cool,” she said. “When you can tell that they learned something, that’s the same kind of rush an entertainer gets when he makes the audience laugh.”

Truksa has had plenty of practice honing her skills behind the planetarium console. One day, she might introduce a troop of boy scouts to the wonders of Saturn.

Another, she might discuss astrophysics with college seniors.

For each new program, she writes a script that includes narration and a corresponding sequence of directions for the stars and planets. A new script can be overwhelming at first, so she practices it like an actor, until her voice and movements come automatically.

No matter her audience, she aims to transform the initial awe of seeing the starlit sky into an educational moment.

For example, when preschoolers visit, Truksa integrates nursery rhymes and songs into her lesson. She’ll direct the Taurus constellation over the moon and say, “Why is Taurus here? Because the cow jumped over the moon!”

In the past 15 years, many planetariums around the country have been retrofitted with digital projectors, while human operators have been replaced with automated voice recordings.

But Truksa said that the old-fashioned analogue projectors in the Whittenberger Planetarium provide sharper, more realistic light than digital projectors.

And the human element can never be replaced, Truksa said, noting how she often strays from her script to answer the questions and curiosities of the people in her audience.

“This is the wave of the future,” Truksa said of the 42-year-old planetarium. “Here we can get the audience actively engaged.”

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