The Loras College Honors Program is built on the pillars of interdisciplinary research, student collaboration and service-based community contribution. Students learn to embody these traits in a three-year project that helps them also hone skills in academic exploration and cultural competency. The most recent success of a senior group speaks to these characteristics and many more.
Heitkamp Planetarium has been part of the Loras College campus since Sept. 27, 1965. Since then, it has entertained and educated students, staff and members of the local community alike. With the help of Natalie Droeske (’19), Audrey Miller (’19), Austin Kuchenbecker (’19), Celia da Silva (’19) and Jacob Till (’19), the planetarium is now home to one of the most state-of-the-art planetarium projectors within a 100-mile radius of the city of Dubuque.
“The honors program links academic research with real-world problem-solving, and this group has navigated through both small and large problems,” said Dr. Erin VanLaningham, Director of the Honors program. “This group took a local, homegrown project and has been able to reach a larger audience, campus and beyond.”
During their second year, the students chose the task of replacing the planetarium’s projector, a project proposed by Dr. Kristen Thompson, Associate Professor of Engineering, who would become the group’s invaluable mentor. As each of the students stemmed from a different field of study, collaboration and teamwork were integral components of the project.
“Being involved with the Heitkamp Planetarium allows me to work with an interdisciplinary team, a nice contrast to being surrounded by business majors most of the day. It’s exciting to work with others who come from different backgrounds,” said da Silva.
The students’ other fields of study included creative writing (Droeske), chemistry and Spanish (Miller), biochemistry (Kuchenbecker) and kinesiology (Till).
“Interdisciplinary work is one of the core components of the honors program. Students work outside of their major to use their own gifts and talents on a project that support the pillars of a liberal arts education and holistic learning,” said VanLaningham.
After initial macro-and micro-level research in which the group learned about the history of the planetarium and a variety of projectors available for purchase, brainstorming fundraising ideas along the way, they set out working on several local grant applications. An irreplaceable contributor on this front was part-time director of foundation and government support Valorie Woerdehoff (’82, M.A.’12 ), who worked with the students crafting and submitting the applications to the various organizations.
“I am thrilled that this project is moving to completion. Getting a new projector has been on my ‘wish list’ of projects for which to seek funding since I began in this position nine years ago. The planetarium has such a rich history at Loras, providing educational outreach to the entire tri-state area for decades. Having the honors students steer a path to making possible the updating of this facility is a great contribution to the college and the larger community,” Woerdehoff said.
Additionally, the students held various movie-night fundraisers open to the public throughout their project to further supplement their fundraising efforts and generated an active social media marketing campaign dubbed some of the “best marketing efforts of any Honors group” by Loras President Jim Collins (’84). The group also opened up an online donation forum, created and sold T-shirts that featured an image of the night sky from the day the planetarium was completed and worked with faculty and staff members to decide how the new technology will be implemented and used moving forward.
“It’s been exciting for us to watch all the generous donations come in and ultimately lead to the purchase of a new projector for our beloved planetarium. Like any other Honors project, this one has been an appreciable amount of work. However, the work has proved to all be worth it,” Miller said.
The planetarium is such a unique and valued resource that the Honors students who undertook this ambitious project did so with the determination and mindset to see that a new projector was purchased.
“The planetarium provides an outlet for our universal curiosity in those things greater than ourselves. Bringing a new projector to this campus means we can continue to bring our community closer together through our exploration of the universe around us,” Kuchenbecker said.
Most importantly, this group has embraced a tradition of success within the program that will continue to benefit the greater Loras community for years to come.