The Universe Is at Her Fingertips
How a Waubonsie Valley teacher expands the horizons of her star-gazing students
It wasn’t a childhood wish upon a star. Stephanie Rybka of Oswego became a planetarium director out of the blue.As a Bradley University student, she somewhat randomly chose to take an astronomy class, partly because the class met in the planetarium, which sounded fun. Rybka found such enthusiasm for the topic that her professor ended up hiring her for a part-time gig at Peoria Lakeview Museum, which has a planetarium. After graduation, she was looking to teach high school biology when she saw a job posting in Indian Prairie School District 204 for a teacher with planetarium experience.
“I figured I wasn’t qualified, but planetariums are rare. They only received two applications — there’s not a big pool of people with planetarium experience!”
Rybka didn’t expect to get the job, but went through what she remembers as a rigorous application process. When she did get the offer, “I had a little doubt, but I knew if I didn’t say yes, I’d regret it forever.”
Thirteen school years later, Rybka still loves the job. “Even though I kind of fell into it, I found my passion, my hobby,” she says. “I read books, follow NASA, love the big telescopes, and learning about our universe.” “My parents were surprised,” recalls Rybka. “You go to college to teach biology and then you’re a planetarium director!”
Rybka enjoys teaching in Waubonsie Valley High School’s 60-seat planetarium so much that “all summer long, I miss it. It’s so nice to come back and see the stars in the room.”
Maybe it’s genetic. Rybka’s 6-year-old daughter often tells her she “wants to see mommy’s stars” and asks, “How’s big blue guy?” That’s Rybka’s nickname for the huge star projector in the center of the room, original to the space, that projects stars onto the domed ceiling. Incidentally, “big blue guy” is not a telescope. When people ask Rybka if they can “look at her telescope,” she reminds them it’s a projector. Likewise, when she has a public event planned and the weather is threatening, she answers confused callers patiently: “We’re always inside — we always have clear skies.”
The planetarium was built in 1975, the same time as the school, and is a popular field trip for Indian Prairie and surrounding district students. Many kids first visit when — seated in the big cushy seats — their preschool or kindergarten feet don’t touch the floor. “It’s really funny when the older kids come in and say ‘the dome got smaller! I thought this place was bigger!’” says Rybka.
But when the lights go off, they’re impressed yet again, no matter their age. “What we can do in this room — eliminate light pollution from the suburbs — I always get a positive reaction, the ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhhs.’ Whether they’ve been here before or not, adults included. You don’t get that in a normal classroom.”
That’s just one difference Rybka had to get used to. The students who visit are also of many different grade and ability levels and most are unfamiliar faces she must size up quickly. “I had to learn to captivate an audience and adjust the general classroom management,” she says. “This is always a very dynamic room.”
Another big difference: no lights during her presentation. “No other teacher has that!” Rybka says with a laugh. “That’s challenging at every level. For the little kids, they can be scared. The high schoolers try to take advantage of the dark.”
Though District 204 fills about 80 percent of the available field trip slots, the Aurora planetarium is a destination for students in Geneva, Plano, Oswego, Bolingbrook, Wheaton/Warrenville and Naperville District 203, too. “We don’t publicize, so it’s all word of mouth — we also accommodate home-school groups and scouts.”
Family nights — “educational, with a little entertainment” — are offered one Friday each month at 6, 6:45 and 7:30 p.m. and are open to the public for $2 a seat. Tickets are available online at planetarium.ipsd.org, where astronomy fans can also enter an e-mail address to receive Rybka’s newsletter. January’s program focuses on eclipses, in preparation for the total lunar eclipse on January 20 – 21.
But Rybka probably won’t mention that she’s a Pisces, because that, she often has to remind visitors, is astrology, not astronomy. All in a day’s work for your average planetarium director.Edit Module