From the seeds to the stars Inspiring the community through science
As a land-grant university, West Virginia University is dedicated to engaging with the community and using its resources to share its knowledge. WVU interacts with the Morgantown community through two of its most important facilities, the WVU Planetarium and the WVU Core Arboretum.
Written By Bryanna McCullough
Visitors of the WVU Planetarium have the chance to learn about the planets, the
universe and humanity. The Planetarium has the opportunity to inspire future
astronomers and physicists through public shows and through observing the night
sky from the rooftop telescope. Children who visit the Planetarium often leave
with a positive impression of science and may one day pursue an education in
science because of their visit. As one of Morgantown’s premiere green spaces,
the WVU Core Arboretum offers the community somewhere to go on walks, hikes,
picnics, attend nature walks and other events hosted in the Arboretum. Visitors
of the Arboretum are given a chance to connect with nature and learn about the
environment. In the past two years, the University gained two new professors
who are not only teaching, but are helping both the Planetarium and the Arboretum
reach their full potential. Kathryn Williamson, director of the WVU Planetarium,
and Zach Fowler, director of the WVU Core Arboretum, are using their passions
to advance both facilities to inspire and connect with students and citizens
— Kathryn Williamson
One with the universe
Williamson received her Ph.D. in physics from Montana State University and then moved to Green Bank, W.Va., where she worked as the public education specialist at the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory before coming to WVU as an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and director of the WVU Planetarium.
Her passion for space began at a young age, but truly blossomed after reading Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” as a kid. When deciding on a major, she struggled with deciding between art and physics, but decided to keep art as a hobby and ultimately chose physics.
Today, Williamson uses her position at the Planetarium to inspire students and the community.
The Planetarium has been offering students and the community a glimpse into outer space for more than 30 years. Local schools visit the Planetarium on field trips, and public shows are offered every other Friday. The Planetarium features a variety of shows about the moon and seasons, solar superstorms, stars and galaxies, dark matter and black holes and the ultimate universe.
On average, the Planetarium welcomes 5,000 people each year, and Williamson is hoping to increase attendance by offering new shows and events year round.
“Going to the Planetarium is such a memorable experience,” Williamson said. “It gives us a perspective on where we are and who we are. It’s such an important human endeavor to understand the night sky and our place in the universe.”
The Planetarium has acquired a new film since Williamson became the director of the Planetarium. “Earth, Moon, and Sun” is one of the most popular films for elementary students and meets the science standards for elementary schools.
Coming soon is the film “Einstein’s Gravity Playlist,” which explores Einstein’s theory that predicted the existence of gravitational waves. Williamson is excited to soon feature this film since WVU was such an important part of this discovery. WVU professors Sean McWilliams and Zachariah Etienne were part of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) team that discovered gravitational waves in 2015.
“This film features the science that we do here at WVU,” Williamson said. “It’s directly about what researchers at WVU do, and it’s a perfect time to celebrate Einstein.”
Inspired by her alma mater, Williamson brought “Celebrating Einstein” to WVU this spring. Originally produced by Montana State University, “Celebrating Einstein” was a monthlong event at WVU to communicate the beauty and significance of Einstein’s theories. The calendar included a variety of events such as lectures, readings, field trips for middle school students, dance and orchestra performances.
Williamson is currently planning an event around this year’s solar eclipse. For the past year, she has been counting down the days until the total eclipse in August. This is the first solar eclipse that will be visible from the United States since 1979, and it will occur right after the fall semester begins. Williamson is excited to share this experience with students because for many, this will be their first time witnessing a solar eclipse.
“It’s not very often that you get to see a solar eclipse,” Williamson said. “It’s really spectacular and can bring us together as humans observing our universe.”
In addition to offering new events, Williamson hopes to get students more involved with the Planetarium by training undergraduate students to host night observations.
“It’s great experience for students to have skills working with people, communicating science, and getting hands-on experience with technology and scientific equipment,” Williamson said.
As she continues to develop new programs and outreach efforts, Williamson’s main goal is to inspire others.
“I feel like it’s a great day when people engage with the content and leave inspired,” Williamson said. “It feels so good to have those exclamations of excitement and to have students connect with the universe.”
— Zach Fowler
Connecting with nature
Fowler’s love for biology stems from his desire to figure out how things work. His desire led him to study biology to learn how to solve problems from a scientific perspective.
Fowler joined the Department of Biology as an assistant professor and the director of the Core Arboretum after receiving a Ph.D. in biology from WVU. As a doctoral student, he focused in biogeochemistry, which requires an understanding of biology, geography and chemistry. Understanding how these three sciences work together allows Fowler to help visitors at the Arboretum connect with nature and explain how nature works from a scientific perspective.
“It really is fun to see someone connect with nature,” Fowler said. “It’s fun to see them light up when they make that connection.”
When WVU began to develop the Evansdale area in 1948 and acquired the land next to the Monongahela River, Biology Professor Earl Core saw the hillside as a potential resource for his students and the biology department. The University realized the potential the land had and established the WVU Arboretum. Some time after its establishment, it was named after Core as the WVU Core Arboretum.
To this day, students across campus continue to use the Arboretum as an educational and research resource. Students and teachers use it as a classroom to develop skills, learn research methods and conduct research. Fowler often stumbles upon groups of students learning about soil, identifying trees, making study plots and studying the different wildlife throughout the Arboretum.
“Students are learning how to do research in a hands-on way that they wouldn’t be able to do without an outdoor space,” Fowler said.
Three miles of trails stretch across the 91 acres of land, with more than 500 different species of plants including trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants.
Fowler’s unique position makes him responsible for the 91-acres of land. He is responsible for managing, maintaining and developing the Arboretum, which includes landscaping, trail maintenance, planning, coordinating and promoting events, coordinating volunteers and leading groups in addition to teaching two courses.
Although it seems like a lot, Fowler has established a successful volunteer event that takes place each week. Volunteers are currently assisting Fowler with maintenance of the Arboretum, but he hopes to develop the volunteer program beyond maintenance.
“Right now I lead most of the tours, which limits how many events we can host in the Arboretum,” Fowler said. “I’m hoping to develop a docent program for volunteers to learn about the Arboretum and then they can lead tours and teach others.”
Throughout the year, the Arboretum holds events that correspond with big things that are happening in nature. Last summer, the Arboretum hosted a “Magicicada Festival” as the cicadas emerged after 17 years. More than 300 people attended the daylong event and learned about cicada biology and ecology. Each fall, the Arboretum holds a “PawPaw Party,” where students and the community gathered to learn about and taste the largest fruit native to West Virginia.
These events are widely attended by the public, and Fowler hopes to develop more events that correspond with events that occur in the nature of Appalachia.
Fowler’s ultimate goal as director is to open a visitor’s center with an indoor classroom for the University and community to use.
“To achieve these big goals, we need a visitor’s center,” Fowler said. “We’re going to get better and better, but to be a truly functioning Arboretum that really interacts with the community and helps people form the connection with nature that we want, we need a visitor’s center. It’s kind of the missing piece.”
Fowler believes that the Arboretum is a wonderful resource on campus. Other universities have arboreta, but not many have one on campus. The Arboretum is accessible from both Evansdale and Downtown, and professors are able to take their classes there and back during a class period.
“The resource is there, but there are a few things that we need to develop to reach its full potential,” Fowler said.