Just when you think you’ve heard about all the things to do in the South Sound, you might be surprised that there are often undiscovered secrets—sometimes right within well-known places. Case in point, Pierce College’s Science Dome, which is a 58-seat planetarium with a 38-foot dome arching over the entire theater. In fact, it’s the only public planetarium in the Sound Sound with the next closest planetariums located in Seattle and Portland.

The Science Dome is surprisingly immersive. The way the seats are positioned makes viewers feel almost as if they’re inside the dome, and inside the action. Stars swirl around you, landscapes sweep out from under you, planets hang in space in front of your eyes. The effect is mesmerizing.

Science Dome staff
Hillary Stephens (in the middle) with a student worker and planetarium tech, Katie, keep the Science Dome running. Photo credit: Kristin Kendle

“It is actually the largest dome in the state, only by a foot!” says Science Dome Coordinator Hillary Stephens. “We don’t have the largest number of seats, though. Central Washington University and Columbia Basin College both have domes that are a foot smaller than ours, but they have more seats. The way we did our seats it almost looks like you’re inside of the dome, where theirs looks almost more above you so there’s more room for seating. We’ve purposefully left the front open. That’s where we do our hands-on activities with the kids.”

First opened in January 2013, the Science Dome is open to the public and makes a unique date night, a family event sure to wow young ones, as well as a place to learn more about everything from space junk to the Northern Lights to ancient Egypt.

“For our public shows, we have two different kinds,” explains Stephens. “We have all-ages public shows, which are good for any kids who are old enough to sit for an hour. All-ages shows involve a half-hour live presentation followed by a half-hour video.”

Seating at the Science Dome
The dome is situated so that it feels almost like you’re inside the dome. Photo courtesy: Science Dome

“We also have children’s shows,” she adds. “Those are a little more interactive, and it’s all live presentation with some projections on the dome, but not a half hour of straight video. We have the kids doing some hands-on stuff so they aren’t sitting for an hour. So they build constellations from marshmallows and toothpicks and activities like that. We create those in house and run those for a couple months and then create another one.”

The front of the theater has no seats and it’s a space used for kids’ activities, but there are also cushions on the floor where additional people can sit, if they prefer to stretch out and kick back.

Shows take place on Friday and Saturday throughout the year with additional shows on Wednesday during summer months. Tickets are cheaper than a movie at $6 per person. For children’s shows, tickets are free for anyone not ages 3 through 12.

Floor seating
Take a seat on the floor down front if you prefer – there are cushions! This area is also used for hands-on activities. Photo credit: Kristin Kendle

Beyond the usual public shows, the Science Dome also holds special events throughout the year that involve not only a show, but special activities in the lobby area in front of the theater. For example, on March 14, 2017, there will be a celebration in honor of Pi Day that will bring out math and astronomy students who will hold activities for the public to join in. There will also be a pi recitation contest, so if you know your digits beyond 3.14 then come out and test your mettle. The special events change from year to year, but Haunted Night Sky is often held in October and makes a great harvest season/Halloween family activity.

If there are ever any major astrological events, like the solar eclipse coming August 21, 2017, checking out the Science Dome schedule is the way to go. Watching a solar eclipse from your own yard might involve a few fleeting glimpses, but the Science Dome has glasses that make it safe to stare in wonder as well as telescopes outfitted to do the same.

Beyond public events, the Science Dome also serves as a learning tool for classes and groups at Pierce College. While public shows involve specially purchased shows that take up the entire dome, classes on campus can use the dome to show classroom materials or videos. Clubs on campus can also use the dome to show documentaries or movies, so long as the school has the right licensing to show the materials.

Science Dome Pierce College
While there’s seating for 58, more people can fit on the floor down front and there’s room for wheelchairs in the back. Photo courtesy: Science Dome.

The Science Dome also makes a nifty place to hold your own event. For $200, the public can rent out the whole dome and invite as many people as they’d like. The group gets to choose the show, gets all the seats to themselves, and also picks the date and time. Stephens says the Science Dome has held a number of birthdays, retirement parties and a few retirement communities have come for a private show too.

“It’s a great little place that I don’t think a lot of people know about,” she says. “There are people who live a couple blocks away who have no idea there’s a planetarium here. There are students here who don’t even know this is here. We just want people to know we’re here and we’re open to the public.”

Pierce College is located at 9401 Farwest Drive SW, Lakewood, Washington 98498. The Science Dome is located in the Rainier Building, on the second floor, in room 263. All ages shows are held at 7 p.m. on Fridays and 3:15 p.m. on Saturdays, and in the summer only on Wednesdays at 1 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. Children’s shows are held Saturdays at 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. For a schedule of upcoming shows and events, check the Science Dome blog.

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