As the “new” director of the Ott Planetarium at Weber State University, I recently attended my first International Planetarium Society Conference. The meeting gives planetarium presenters, educators and vendors from around the world a chance to meet and talk about all of the new content and technology that’s available.

Usually, this event is held someplace exotic like Osaka, Japan, or Warsaw, Poland, or Kansas City, Kansas. This year’s location was scheduled to be held in Edmonton, Canada, until COVID-19 forced us to change the venue to Zoom.

The meeting highlighted the reason we usually travel across the planet to meet in the same place and at the same time. The international conference had participants from the Americas, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, China, Japan, Southeast Asia, India, Australia and New Zealand. As such, the organizers scheduled the meetings on Monday, Wednesday and Friday during reasonable hours, for some.

Monday was good for Canada, the U.S. and Latin America; Wednesday convenient for Europe and Africa; and people in Asia could wake at a reasonable hour on Friday. But that did mean that everyone, for at least two of the days, were likely up at 2 a.m. sipping a hot beverage and staring into their computer screens.

I, for one, kept my camera off.

Other than that small hiccup caused by living on a spinning globe, the meeting went well. This is a fortuitous time for social distancing. As more of us learn how to navigate digital communications, the easier it gets, and the more natural it seems. It’s certainly not as good as being there, but definitely better than nothing.

And there are some very important advantages. For one thing, a number of us — myself included — were attending for the first time and perhaps wouldn’t have been able to afford the time or resources necessary to travel far afield. In some ways, interacting with each other was much easier. The side conversations in the chat window often enhanced the presentations, and people could ask questions when they thought of them to be answered later. I was also surprised at the number of teams who decided to present together, something you don’t often see at face-to-face meetings. It was interesting to see so many taking advantage of the platform to make the experience better for everyone.

People are also working hard to reach out to their audiences even when they can’t come into the theater. The Fisk Planetarium, in Boulder, Colorado, started the Dome to Home program to stream live star shows. Some are doing virtual field trips, where school groups can experience a live star show via their web browser when in-person field trips are not an option. The Ott Planetarium, for our part, has been experimenting with different types of outreach activities, including DIY science videos that you can find on our website weber.edu/ottplanetarium.

All told, some 300 participants showcased all of the lemonade they’re making from the COVID-19 lemons.

This conference took place as we all prepare for school this fall. At Weber State University, we are offering a range of virtual classes, from purely online — that is, with no set meeting times — to virtual classes that meet regularly via Zoom. Some professors are offering face-to-face options to small groups, especially if there is a need for specialized equipment. After all, not everyone has access to a scanning electron microscope or a concert piano at home.

Our colleagues in K-12 have a more daunting task. Virtual and online are still options and, depending on how things go in the first few weeks, may be used in lieu of any face-to-face meeting.

But regardless of format, we have to remember that all learning is social. There may be online and virtual classes, but there is no such thing as “online” learning. Learning has to be done where you are and with the people around you.

I’ve been encouraged by the summer students in my physics online course who have recruited their spouses, children and roommates to help them with the at-home experiments. It seems like even with the online format, little mini-classrooms are popping up all over. Here’s hoping that parents, children and siblings can recreate some of their own classroom experiences at home as we weather this crisis.

I’m of the opinion that, at least with respect to COVID-19, things will probably get worse before they get better, but thank goodness we live in a time when we have some tools to help make this ordeal just a little bit easier.

Dr. John Armstrong is a Weber State University professor of physics. Twitter: @ByJCArmstrong

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