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The charmed life of a ‘star’ teacher

Robert Black has been taking students to the stars for 20 years and counting
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Robert Black, planetarium director at North Medford High School, gives a presentation to a first-grade class from Abraham Lincoln Elementary School.

Editor’s note: Community Builder is a periodic Q&A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today's conversation is with Robert Black, planetarium director and teacher at North Medford High School.

Q: What is the history of the North Medford High School planetarium?

Robert: The planetarium was built at Medford Senior High in 1967. Planetariums were being built throughout the country in high schools and community colleges between 1967 and 1972 with the long-term goal of competing with the Soviet Union in space. Elliott Becken was the superintendent in 1966-67. He wrote an Apollo grant for the planetarium. The school district spent $30,000 and the Apollo program contributed $300,000 for construction.

Q: Were other planetariums built in Oregon with Apollo money?

Robert: Mt. Hood and Chemeketa community colleges built similar structures. North is the only high school in Oregon with a planetarium and is the only planetarium between Eugene and Redding.

Q: How is the planetarium used for instruction?

Robert: I teach four astronomy classes each day. I provide programs for every fifth-grader and most first-graders in Medford schools about space science using the planetarium. There's nothing more joyful than a room of first-graders. You can't help but beam from ear to ear being around them. If I ask, “Who wants to be an astronaut?” everybody raises their hand. If I have time available, out-of-district classes are charged for presentations.

Q: Do community groups utilize the planetarium?

Robert: North hosts the Southern Oregon Sky Watchers, our local astronomy club, at the planetarium. They are a great audience for high school students to present their projects. It's nice to mix 50-, 60-, 70-year-olds and high school kids. Sky Watcher members Dave Bloomsness, Colin White, Sean Curry and John Bunyan have become student mentors and partners on many projects.

Q: So, the planetarium operating system is 50-year-old technology?

Robert: This planetarium was built as an optical-mechanical system. It’s basically eight solar system clocks in one system with a really bright bulb that projects the stars. It’s been in operation for almost 55 years. On Dec. 28, 2021, I got an email from Spitz, the company that supports the system and provides parts, that they weren’t going to provide replacement parts any longer. I called Spitz, “What do I do?” She said, “You either upgrade and move into the digital world, or ... you had 55 good years.”

Q: What happened next?

Robert: I picked myself up off the floor and called Digistar, the only American manufacturer of premier digital planetarium systems. They have a great reputation; I've been to several Digistar planetariums. I asked for a quote on the Digistar 7 system. It was over $200,000. I hit the floor again. I know how tight district budgets are. I immediately got contact information for the West Foundation, Carpenter Foundation and the Murdock Trust, thinking, “if the district could put up $100,000, I'll work on funding for the other $100,000.” I emailed our superintendent, Dr. Brett Champion. I hadn’t met him, but he’s a Texan, I’m a Texan. I was trained to work hard and do your job. ... If the superintendent doesn't call, you’re doing great. If the superintendent walks in the door, something’s wrong. I went over the chain of command and straight to the superintendent. I was a bit nervous. We arranged a meeting.

I had the Digistar 7 proposal, the history of the planetarium, and how many students we serve. I presented the situation and what we needed. Finally, I said, “There’s two scenarios: I maintain the planetarium as long as I can, then I retire. Or we upgrade to a Digistar 7.” I shared how much it would cost. He said, “Let’s do it. We’ll find the money.” A few days later Dr. Champion, Brad Earl and Jeanie Grazioli joined North’s principal, Gregg O’Mara, for a tour of the planetarium. They all supported purchasing a digital operating system. We took that recommendation to the school board in February, and they voted 7-0 to upgrade the system and keep the planetarium going.

Q: What are some advantages of a digital operating system?

Robert: There are 30,000 animations, shows in the cloud that you can download. The computer system has a two-terabyte hard drive with 32 GB of RAM. We can tap into NASA’s satellites and telescopes to get real-time data and project it on the dome of the planetarium. The University of Chicago Digital Sky Survey allows users to use visuals from anywhere in the universe. We’ll be able to share presentations from other planetariums. It’s really an upgrade.

Q: When do you think the new system will be up and running?

Robert: It’s a six-month process. We’ve already signed the contract, the money has changed hands, and they guarantee we’ll be up and running in six months. They’ll train me on the Digistar system on-site at North.

Q: What motivated you to get this new planetarium system?

Robert: I didn’t want to be the guy that let the planetarium die. It’s going to be a lot of work, and it will add a few years to my career, but it will be worth it to have a state-of-the-art planetarium. The next challenge is to get funding for the annual insurance on the system after the two-year warranty expires.

Q: Have there only been three planetarium directors in 55 years?

Robert: Gary Sprague was director for 18 years. Gary was thinking about retiring and I asked him whether he had anybody in line to run the planetarium. He said, “What about you?” Gary trained me and encouraged me to attend NASA workshops and SOU astronomy classes. I gave up my prep period for the 2000-01 school year to sit in on Gary’s astronomy class. It was a busy year for me as a husband, a father and teacher, but the transition was seamless. Prior to Gary, Jack Eagleson ran the planetarium from 1967 to 1984.

Q: What about the telescopes and the observatory you had built?

Robert: I’ve encouraged future astronomers, astrophysicists and aerospace engineers by taking kids the next step and teaching them to use tools that astronomers use. We have three great telescopes to observe the night sky. They are set up in the observatory near the planetarium with a retractable roof. Building the observatory is the greatest achievement of my teaching career.

Q: How did you come to live and teach in Southern Oregon?

Robert: I grew up in Texas and wanted to be a geologist. I've always been a rock collector. I went to the University of Wyoming, really liked it, really got plugged in, but there was winter. My first year in Laramie, they got about 600 inches of snow. A nice little college in west Texas called Sul Ross State, named after an old frontier fighter and former governor of Texas, became my new college. I got my geology degree and worked as a field geologist for several years. I had a problem with the end-result of mineral explorations. Beautiful mountains were reduced to open pits, just nasty holes.

On a National Science Foundation research project to determine if an asteroid took down the dinosaurs, I found a giant dinosaur bone. At an all-school assembly I walked out carrying that big dinosaur bone and the kids went crazy. I said, “Now, this is fun.” I went back to Sul Ross and got a teaching degree in Earth and space science. Marfa, Texas, was my first teaching job. I really liked teaching. My adopted brother moved from Texas to the Applegate Valley in 1994. He said, “Man, you got to get out here.” The minute I set foot on the North campus it became apparent that these teachers were pros. Ron Toombs, Mark Geisslinger, Linda Bradshaw, George Duran, Steve Levesque, Rhonda Lee; this was a magical place. I found a home at North Medford High.

Q: How did you adapt instruction during COVID?

Robert: COVID was rough. You can deliver a good lesson using Zoom, and I developed a monthly webinar series. The first webinar was with two folks who were locked in the Biosphere II for two years, Taber and Jane. They almost ran out of oxygen. Matt Heverly, a Medford native, was instrumental with the Mars rovers. Ashwin Vasavada shared his work as a Mars planetary geologist, his parents retired at the Manor. They were big hits with the kids. The students wrote amazing essays about how they were inspired by these presenters. The most amazing webinar was by three North graduates who are working on their PhDs in astronomy. COVID was terrible, but you make the best of each situation.

Q: What have you learned about kids in 30 years of teaching?

Robert: The main thing is, get students involved. Students learn more when they are working on projects that interest them. If you want to make scientists out of them, you have to expose them to real science. If I put an opportunity on the board, I’ve never had a student say, “No, I don’t want to be on your aeronautic team.” I recently needed four students to run the telescopes in the observatory. Four prospective “student observatory directors” volunteered in five minutes. Kids want to participate; they want to get involved.

Q: What has changed over the years?

Robert: There is a definite shift in girls out-performing guys academically. It seems that seven out of 10 valedictorians are girls. Many guys are addicted to shoot ‘em up and chase and hunt video games. Girls are attentive, they’re on time, they perform. They’re not tired, they get enough sleep. There are still great guys performing, but they’re generally not gamers. They use computers as tools, not for gaming.

Q: Has teaching astronomy been a good career?

Robert: It’s been very fulfilling. My wife, Cherise, has been supportive of all the time I spend after school on various astronomy projects. I love keeping up with the accomplishments of former students. Recently, I reconnected with Jason Kimble, who was the first student I worked with on a science fair project in 1989. Jason is now an astronomy researcher with the Solar Dynamic Observatory at University of Memphis. I’ve lived a charmed life, I got lucky a lot of times.

Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.

Robert Black bio

Robert Black has been a science teacher for 34 years, seven in Texas and 26 at North Medford High School. He has been planetarium director and astronomy teacher for the past 20 years.

Black has two bachelor’s degrees, in geology and in Earth and space science, both from Sul Ross State University. He completed a Master’s in Science Education from Southern Oregon University in 2004. Black’s wife, Cherise, teaches math at McLoughlin Middle School. They have two adult children, Amber and Skyler.

Black’s roles at North have included student government advisor, Torch Honor Society advisor, science and engineering mentor, and Murdock Trust Partner in Science. He has mentored over 100 astronomy senior projects with assistance from community members. Some senior project topics included transits of Venus and Mercury, lunar and solar eclipses, solar max studies, stellar spectroscopy, exoplanet transits, double stars, and light pollution.

Black led the construction of a telescope observatory at North. America Rocketry Challenge and Aerospace Engineering are two student teams that he has coached. Projects he has been involved with include ferroelectrics at SOU, NASA Solar System Ambassador, Resources and People Teacher, NASA Dryden Space Center, and NASA High Altitude Balloon Project.