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Familiar Face: Denise Vacca
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
By Anne Neborak

Denise Vacca

Astronomy Educator


Background: Denise Vacca educates children and adults with the wonders of the night sky with her portable planetarium. Vacca graduated from Cardinal O’Hara High School, then went on to West Chester University where she earned a Bachelors degree in Psychology in 1995. She worked for eight years at the Fels Planetarium in the Franklin Institute Science Museum. Vacca was the planetarium producer where she wrote, created and presented planetarium shows. In 2004, she started her own portable planetarium company called STARS ON THE MOVE, Vacca brings the universe to you with her shows and state of the art Fiber Arc planetarium star projector.

Why did you decide to create this business? “I wanted to expand my planetarium outreach and thought that offering in-school field trips would be an excellent way to provide as many schools as possible with the experience. All my shows are live and much more personal than seeing a pre-recorded show at a public planetarium. If there isn’t enough room for the planetarium, I use PowerPoint, internet resources from NASA and various observatories. I teach students from preschool age to adult. Students and educators are guided on a tour of the current seasonal sky with emphasis on major constellations, planets and special astronomical events. Shows are live, interactive and personal so each show can be different and can incorporate star-related subjects other than science, such as math, creative writing, literature, geography and history.”

What is your favorite thing about what you do? “I love seeing how excited the children and adults get when I first turn out the lights and show the stars. It always gets a “wow.” Unfortunately, with all the street lights and buildings and light pollution, people are not use to seeing a sky full of stars. I also enjoy the questions and answers portion. Because we are all sitting together, it’s very personal and I am able to spend a lot of time answering questions and interacting with the audience.”

What is the most challenging? “Presenting shows to toddlers. Sometimes, it’s difficult to get the younger children into the planetarium but once we get past that challenge, I can usually hold their attention. It’s also difficult to really teach a two year old about the stars since they don’t really like sitting in the dark so that’s why I also bring plenty of funny videos of astronauts eating and floating around. Carrying the equipment is also a challenge as it’s very heavy and I always say that setting up and breaking down is the hardest part of my job. The rest is very rewarding.
What is the most interesting thing about planets that we don’t know? “I’d have to say the most interesting thing about planets that we don;t know is how many planets there actually are in the universe and how many could actually support life. We’ve been looking for planets around other stars and have found hundreds so far and we expect that number to actually be more like trillions and trillions. We’re even finding new moons and objects in our own solar system. As our technology gets better we will undoubtedly find many, many more.”

What do you try to teach others about astronomy?
“I enjoy teaching other things they can actually see from their own backyard. It’s always great learning about a constellation and then being able to find it later that night on your own. I also like giving people a taste of wonderment and hope it inspires them to want to learn more.”
What are the reactions of others when they go through the planetarium? “Most of the kids are super excited and think it’s the coolest thing in the world. Adults also think it’s really cool. Dads especially love it. Many adults think it’s the perfect place to lie on the floor, look up at the stars and relax. Kids take a more involved approach and wonder about aliens and taking rocket ships to other world and living some day on Mars.