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You can hear them before you see them -- the giggling buzz of a group of schoolchildren on a class trip. The excitement among them is palpable as they stampede down the hallway and swarm into Old Dominion's Pretlow Planetarium for today's trip to outer space.

The planetarium, used primarily for introductory astronomy classes in the university's physics department, also hosts about 60 school and church groups a year, according to Bruce Hanna, director and astronomy instructor since 1974.

Today's audience, the Kempsville Church of Christ Youth Group, settles into their seats for an entertaining and informational show in the 40-foot, domed Spitz Ap-3 planetarium. Built in 1966, the facility is nestled between the Alfriend Chemistry and Mills Godwin Jr. Life Sciences buildings.

But before the stars come out, Hanna teaches the third- and fourth-graders a few concepts about space.

What would happen if you depressurized out in space? Using a glass filled with shaving cream in a vacuum container, Hanna removes all the air from the container, forcing the cream to rise dangerously high above the glass.

He's demonstrating what would happen if an astronaut ripped his or her suit in space. To the delight of the kids, the shaving cream oozes throughout the container when he lets the air back in.

Next, Hanna enlists the help of a boy to explain carbon dioxide and the atmosphere on Venus. Mixing baking soda and vinegar in a water pitcher, Hanna creates carbon dioxide vapors. The boy then pours the vapors over a lighted candle, snuffing out the flame to a chorus of "Wow" and "Cool" from the group.

Now it's time for the show.

As the simulated sun sets on the $90,000 planetarium dome to the sounds of Kermit the Frog's "Rainbow Connection," the Norfolk night sky appears courtesy of a $4,000 projector. Over the next half-hour, Hanna points out the various constellations and provides the youngsters with tips for remembering where to find them in the sky.

"Where's my seat belt?" one girl asks when the star show begins moving.

After a jazzy laser show, Hanna opens up the floor to questions.

"Is there another planet that hasn't been named?" "Where's the biggest telescope?" "Why does it feel like we're moving?"

For Hanna, the school groups offer a diversion from his university classes, where he teaches 300 or more students each semester.

"It's always fun to do it," he says. "I use more music and graphics. They're so enthusiastic about it."

This article was posted on: September 13, 2000

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