The first Canadian astronaut in space helped launch the Ontario Science Centre’s newly upgraded planetarium on Thursday.
The CA Planetarium, which was recently refurbished via a $275,000 financial grant from CA Canada, is Toronto’s only public planetarium and resides in the science centre’s Space Hall exhibit. Marc Garneau, who made history in 1984 when he became the first Canadian to fly in space, called the newly opened planetarium a positive achievement in the effort to get young people interested in science and technology.
“The CA Planetarium will allow kids to learn about astronomy and space in a hands-on way, and that’s where it needs to begin,” Garneau said. “This will be the place that pushes students over the edge in wanting to play a critical role in science and technology education, beyond the walls of the classroom.”
The renovations include a newly installed Zeiss dual-head projector using Sky-Skan’s Digital Sky-2 3D operating system and a huge database consisting of hundreds of thousands of real-time rendered space objects. As opposed to more traditional planetarium exhibits, which offer a fixed view of space from the Earth, the science centre’s software allows users to leave the Earth and fly to various stars and galaxies across the Milky Way.
Garneau said that even though he’s spent his entire career with some of the most advanced equipment on the planet, science and technology is about constantly learning and discovering new things. He said promoting this learning in a practical and engaging way will help foster to want to keep exploring these often overlooked areas of study.
The planetarium also offers a live presenter to its visitors, as opposed to a prerecord lecture. This allows for students to interact with the presentation and ask questions on-the-fly.
“Nine in 10 Canadian university students say that trips to the science centre increase their interest in science and technology,” Jimmy Fulton, vice-president and country manager at CA Canada said, citing a recently-released survey by Toronto’s The Strategic Counsel.
Fulton said that increasing the likelihood of getting young Canadians involved in science and tech careers is especially important in today’s world, considering that many industry observers and educators have noted declining interest amongst student enrollment to these fields.
The Strategic Counsel survey, which polled 482 Canadian university students, also found that the top reason that most young people avoid science and technology as a career choice is because they deem it “too complex” and “too boring.” In the computer science fields, these complaints have been especially true among Canadian students.
“What we’re seeing is enrollment dropping dramatically year after year, and in fact, we have some Canadian institutions that have room for 300 or 400 students for their first year intake,” Paul Swinwood, president of Ottawa-based Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC), said. “It turns out less than 10 per cent of those numbers actually enroll, so expect next year and beyond to offer even smaller graduates.”
Earlier this year, the ICTC published its own report on enrollment numbers among Canadian universities. The study looked at undergraduate, graduate, masters and PhD students at close to 40 universities across the country. It found that declining enrollment rates commenced in about 2002 among Canadian institutions, resulting in enrollments numbers at 36 per cent to 64 per cent of their peak values.
“Everybody is at fault for this trend, from the provinces down to the education system,” Dalhousie computer science professor Jacob Slonim, who also served as a lead on the ICTC report, said. “Education in this country ignores computer science in high school, so students come in with virtually no understand of computing besides what they see with video games.”
With the newly opened state-of-the-art facility, Fulton wants CA Canada to help change this trend. He said along with the science centre upgrade, the company has donated to a variety of Canadian universities – including the University of Toronto, University of Waterloo, and Carleton University – in an effort to promote advanced technology and computer science research for PhD and Masters students.
Regular daily shows at the newly renovated Space Hall and CA Planetarium will be available to the public beginning at the end of May.