Community Impact

In a Galaxy Far, Far Away…

For almost 50 years, Mankato East High School provided a unique learning environment for students and the community to experience the solar system at the Mankato Area Public Schools Planetarium. Smaller updates and upgrades allowed the current equipment to last as long as possible, but its longevity was quickly approaching a black hole.

Thanks to some serendipitous conversations and thoughtful supporters, a $35,000 grant from the Mankato Area Foundation (MAF) launched the planetarium to be one of the few high schools in the world to own a Spitz Star Projector.

The new projector allows visitors to explore the universe. The orbit paths of planets in the solar system, planet surfaces, and other galaxies are all viewable with the projector and programs, which show the universe in real-time.

Annual activity in the planetarium includes high school astronomy classes and K through 8 field trips for District 77 and other districts throughout the state. The student-run high school Planetarium Production Club also provides regular shows for the general public. Group members learn to use highly sophisticated equipment while navigating the various programs. Approximately 15,000 people a year visit the planetarium.

David Burgess, the Director of the Planetarium and a teacher at East High School, revealed that despite public showings, many people in Mankato are unaware of the planetarium's existence. He believes it to be a hidden treasure.

“People come in here and say, “Holy buckets, I didn’t know you had this here,” said Burgess, “It is really fun to see their reactions.”

Burgess has worked with NASA to use the planetarium as a tool in developing lesson plans focusing on different types of earth science and the solar system. Holding the position since 1995, he explains that he could have retired several years ago but has too much fun with the students and planetarium to do so. Burgess credited the Mankato Area Foundation for making the planetarium such a sight to see.

“Without the Mankato Area Foundation, this wouldn’t have been possible,” he said. “It’s such a cool thing to have here.”

The project almost didn’t happen. As a community foundation, MAF is a resource for nonprofit organizations and donors in the community. MAF President and CEO, Nancy Zallek, learned about the planetarium’s needs from a discussion with Superintendent Paul Peterson. It was doubtful that such a specific project would have wide appeal with fund holders; however, knowing that it was still a possibility, Zallek spread the word.

Someone must have wished upon a star as there was immediate interest. Since MAF assisted in funding the original planetarium technology when it opened almost 50 years ago, donors gravitated toward an opportunity to continue the longevity of support. The current gift from MAF is funded by the Kendall and Rod Meyer Fund, Page Jones Richards Family Fund, and the Thin Film Technology Fund.

“We’re thrilled to be a long-time supporter of this unique educational experience for the school district. It only seemed appropriate to help provide an upgrade for the well-used and aging