5-minute read

Encouraging kids to shoot for the stars

Solstice Outreach uses astronomy to reach kids with limited access to STEM experiences.

Caitlin O’Brien grew up surrounded by space. Some of her fondest childhood memories are watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos with her dad.

“He would bring me on stargazing trips. Or even if we just got home late at night, we’d stand in the driveway and just look up and point at stars,” Caitlin recalls.

As an undergrad majoring in astronomy and astrophysics and physics, Caitlin knew she loved astronomy but questioned if she could make a career of it. With the encouragement of her dad, the person who sparked her interest in space to begin with, and an innovative startup program at Ohio State, she decided to turn her sights for her own future skyward.

Today, the 2023 graduate is bringing her passion for astronomy to those who have limited access to STEM experiences with portable planetarium shows as part of Solstice Outreach.

“It is a very unique experience to be able to sit down, lay back, and be surrounded by the universe. But unfortunately, you need very specialized equipment,” Caitlin explains. “Solstice Outreach uses immersive and engaging planetarium shows to provide high-quality STEM outreach to kids who might otherwise not receive STEM education.”

Children enjoy a planetarium show. (photo: Logan Wallace).

Helping children see themselves in scientific fields

By bringing the wonders of a planetarium show to urban and rural communities that often don’t have access to high-quality science outreach, Caitlin and her business partners, Bella Roberts ’25 and Jacob Griffith ’23, hope to show kids there is a place for them in science.

It gets children asking questions like: How big is the Milky Way? How long until we visit Mars? How can I become an astronomer?

“Typical portable planetariums will only show pre-rendered movies,” explains Jacob, who majored in business and nonprofit management. “We wanted to make Solstice Outreach fully interactive to answer any questions the kids may have and be able to show them what they are talking about while we are answering.”

What sets Solstice Outreach apart is its inflatable dome and software that allows the team to create a customizable, interactive show in real time.

It immerses kids in space, making STEM engaging and accessible. If children have questions during the presentation, the team can act in the moment and fly across the galaxy to show specific celestial monuments to answer them.

The Solstice Outreach team: from left, Jacob Griffith '23, Caitlin O'Brien '23 and Bella Roberts '25 (photo: Jodi Miller).

Bella, who majored in geology and earth science, recalls being in second grade and listening to her teacher tell stories about constellations and the corresponding Greek mythology.

“It only took that one moment to spark that interest I’ve had my entire life,” says Bella. “I’ve been to space camp eight times, and I’ve worked there. ... I’m a mega space nerd, basically.”

If the Solstice Outreach team creates interest in space for just one child through their shows, they say that will be their measure of success.

Inside a show: In the dome and under the stars

You step into a large, inflatable dome, which acts as a spaceship as the presenters fly you across the galaxy. You lose sight of the world you left behind, as space surrounds you in every direction.

As the dome’s zipper closes, an endless universe of possibilities opens in front of your eyes. Starting from the exact coordinates of the dome, the participants count down from 10 to blast off from Earth to explore space. Going in order from the sun to Neptune, you’ll learn about all the planets in our solar system and what makes them unique, stopping at nearby moons and other celestial artifacts.

From our solar system and beyond, you’ll land back on Earth with newfound knowledge and hopefully more of an interest in space science. You might even return with the discovery of a new path you’d like to follow.

The Solstice Outreach team unboxes an inflatable planetarium (photo: Jodi Miller).

The presentation is tailored to specific age groups, but the level of enthusiasm and knowledge from the presenters is consistent.

“There has to be a lot of collaboration between the person presenting and the person who is flying,” says Bella. “If the presenter goes off script, the flier has to react quickly to stay true to the interactive aspect of the show.”

Caitlin recalled a time when she was piloting the computer in the middle of a show and a child ran up to give her a hug.

“And that was the moment when it clicked that we are actually making an impact on these kids.”

Reaching their goals

But before the hugs and planetarium shows, there was a lot of planning, hard work and help along the way.

When Caitlin had an idea for bringing the stars to communities that needed greater access to science, she turned to Ashley Lippincott of Ohio State’s Keenan Center for Entrepreneurship.

“How do I make this happen?” Caitlin asked.

The answer: The President's Buckeye Accelerator program.

A yearlong program directed by the Keenan Center, it provides the winning teams with $50,000 in funding as well as mentorship, skill-building and community support to help prepare them to launch their businesses.

Fifty-one teams attended a multiple month-long camp to learn how to turn their ideas into a sustainable business model. Solstice Outreach was one of six teams awarded $50,000 of startup funds in 2023.

The team at work in the new Student Entrepreneurs’ Center (photo: Corey Wilson).

“I have had an immense amount of help from Ohio State and many different people. Obviously, none of this would be possible without the President’s Buckeye Accelerator program,” says Caitlin.

Ashley, the program coordinator, says it’s been inspiring to watch Caitlin and her team found their startup.

“Their goal has always been to create a tangible impact within their communities and share their infectious passion for science with the next generation of difference-makers,” she says. “Seeing that mission come to fruition gives me an indescribable feeling of pride in their accomplishments and Ohio State’s dedication to encouraging and supporting its student founders.”

The President’s Buckeye Accelerator helped Caitlin transform her innovations into a reality, helping bring her ideas to market so Solstice Outreach can have an impact on the world by showing kids what lies beyond it.

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