Case Study: Eastern Michigan University

2023-08-03 / Staff Writer / Case Study

The dramatic planetarium at EMU
The Mark Jefferson Science Complex, home to EMU's planetarium (levitating at right).

“It’s an iconic space, and it puts our program on the map nicely. It really wows the students and crowds that come see it.”

Norbert Vance, Director of the Sherzer Observatory

School Profile

Eastern Michigan University, located in Ypsilanti, Michigan, serves a population of nearly 15,000 students. The university's mission is to enrich lives within a supportive, intellectually dynamic, and diverse community. EMU emphasizes learning both inside and outside the classroom to benefit local and global communities.

The Challenge

EMU Planetarium Interior
View from below of the suspended EMU planetarium

The university recently underwent a large-scale renovation of its Mark Jefferson Science Complex. The centerpiece of the renovation is the spherical planetarium room, suspended four stories above the ground in the atrium of the complex. The striking sphere is visible from a distance, attracting a lot of student attention. “The space sells itself. We have students tugging on the door just out of curiosity,” shares Norbert Vance, Director of the Sherzer Observatory and EMU instructor.

EMU has a large number of students enrolled in their College of Education. One of the main goals of their renovation was to become a leader in science education and help meet the growing national shortage of STEM educators. EMU aimed to attract science education students by providing a comprehensive space for learning. In addition to the planetarium, the renovation also included numerous labs, maker spaces, and an observatory.

Through his various career experiences, Vance recognized that many surrounding schools had outdated, nonfunctioning planetarium spaces. The newly constructed science facility at EMU would ensure that students were not only familiar with planetarium systems, but also prepared to use them independently and effectively.

Selecting Digitalis Planetarium Systems

EMU's Digitarium Lambda Plus
The Digitarium Lambda Plus in the EMU Planetarium

After conducting a web search for the best mix of affordability and quality, Vance discovered Digitalis planetarium systems. “Digitalis was helpful in letting us piecemeal [a system] together and get it up and running. That was very advantageous since we don’t have an unlimited budget. We could create our own system that functions really well, but do it within our financial constraints. The system resolution and color rivals million dollar systems,” he remarked.

In addition to being cost-effective, the Digiarium Lambda projector also proved to have the best ease of use. “There are no messy setups or pre-programming. We can do demos on the fly as we think of them. You don’t need additional staff running the controls. It does everything a big planetarium can do, but frankly, easier,” added Vance. “It’s ideal because I can hand off the remote control and … the most basic functions take less than a minute to learn.”

Digitalis’ ability to create a customized system within its budget constraints enabled EMU to create an incredibly impressive, yet still affordable, planetarium system.

The Outcomes

EMU Planetarium Interior
A peek through the doors into the EMU planetarium

Because of how simple the Digitalis system is to use, Vance created a course called Planetarium Science, where students learn to operate and teach in a planetarium. Students in this class create unique 30-minute presentations, allowing them to showcase their skills and knowledge. The purpose of this course is not only to fulfill a requirement of the astronomy minor program, but also because Vance recognized that numerous surrounding schools had planetariums that were dormant.

“When students leave here, they may find themselves [teaching] at a school with a planetarium that is sitting idle, as is too often the case… What better way to get these things going again than to bring them up to speed in an affordable way? They lack pizazz and flexibility in their current state, but digital systems are relatively affordable. We can send teachers out that have the incentive and knowledge to get systems up and running again,” Vance declared.

By equipping these students with the capability to revitalize and utilize planetariums, Vance aims to reignite interest in these facilities. Several former students, who now work in local districts, have expressed a desire to acquire Digitalis systems for their schools. In choosing Digitalis, EMU has paved the way for the revitalization of inactive planetariums in the surrounding schools, offering students and the public engaging and interactive educational experiences.

Eastern Michigan University's selection of Digitalis planetarium systems has proven to be a cost-effective and user-friendly solution to enhance science education. The combination of a state of the art planetarium, observatory, and lab space provides EMU students with critical hands-on experiences in astronomy.

Through their curriculum and outreach efforts, the Physics and Astronomy department is successfully preparing future teachers to bring planetariums back to life. Providing them with the knowledge and skillset to run a planetarium ensures that these valuable educational resources do not go to waste in surrounding schools.

Do you want to help the next generation of educators unlock the potential of planetariums? Access our funding guide , where you can find resources to bring these incredible educational tools back into the classroom.


Toni Feder; The US is in dire need of STEM teachers, Physics Today 1 March 2022; 75 (3): 25–27.

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