Feeling the Stars: Months of Hard Work Turn a Labor of Love into a Reality!

I decided I'd like to chronicle my journey of making planetarium shows in the James S. McDonnell Planetarium accessible for our visitors who are blind or have low vision.  I've already done so much work but there's also so much more to be done.  This post will serve to recap the last year of work since the conception of this project to now, with future posts following along through our first visitors getting to experience the program.

The project actually started with a class I took for my Masters in Museum Studies at the Johns Hopkins University.  We had to create a proposal for an education program that was either new or adapted a current program.  Upon looking around my planetarium where I was at that time a volunteer, I started to wonder how visitors who are blind or had low vision could experience the Planetarium and decided my program should focus on this.  

The program I proposed, "Feeling the Stars," will serve as a pilot to adapt all our other shows, but the show I picked to start, The Little Star That Could, I picked for a few reasons:  1) It has fantastic content that no matter the age of the viewer (even though it is intended for young children) one can learn something. 2) It is shown in planetariums all over the world (thus we could offer the program to other planetariums, helping them become more accessible too!). 3) It has been in planetariums since 1986 when it was first written, produced and shown in the McDonnell Star Theater at the Saint Louis Science Center (SLSC), which means that it has held its appeal for 27 years now (and will most likely continue to hold that appeal).

Through phase one of the grant, visitors will first be introduced to the space through a tactile model of the theater, allowing them to safely learn about the projector through touch.  The show the students/visitors will be seeing talks a lot about stars colors and how they relate to temperature.  Since these visitors may never have seen colors before, plush versions of the characters (stars) will be made so that the students/visitors could feel the facial features.  These characters are also be microwaveable though (like a Bed Buddy) and heated to different temperatures.  That plus the different textures from different fabrics will help visitors grasp these concepts.  Visitors will also be given tactile books with raised images of the show so they can follow along with the program by feeling what is happening on the dome.  There will also be an iPad option for visitors who had low vision.  Phase two will add descriptive audio for the shows and Braille and large print signage on all the exhibits as well, facilitating the self-guided visits (with optional guided tours available upon request).

At the end of the class, I approached my boss and showed him my proposal.  He was beyond supportive and we immediately started working with other staff throughout the museum to make my proposal a reality.  For nine months we polished and perfected the proposal and toyed with prototypes like this little guy (don’t worry he gets better),

 The original yellow plush toy prototype of the main character, Little Star (or Sol) is sitting in the middle of an artistic image of the sun on a terrazzo floor.
Little Star (Sol) on the Sun








and this prototype mini model (bottom) of our planetarium's projector based off of my rendering (top) made by one of our amazing preparators (actual will be a much larger model with a lot more detail)

 The projector looks like a blue egg with bumps all over it raised up on crutches in the middle of a room that has an enormous dome.  Half of the dome has been cut away in this image to reveal the room better.  The projector looks like a blue egg with bumps all over it raised up on crutches.  This sits upon a black large black box in the shape of the letter Y.  On the long stem of the Y are 8 rectangular boxes.  The egg projects the stars while the boxes project the planets, sun and moon.
Google SketchUp Model of the Zeiss Universarium IX in the StarBay Mini Prototype Model of the Zeiss Universarium IX Projector (Thanks, Ian!)

After months of working so hard and pulling everything together, it came time to ask for funding.  In August of 2012 we were awarded a grant by Lighthouse for the Blind - Saint Louis to cover the first part of the proposal (which will get us rolling and able to reach our target audience).  They've also agreed to match donations to cover the second and third parts of the proposal up to half of the cost!  I definitely owe special thanks to my boss, John, to Suzanne, and our wonderful volunteer, Deb for all their support in the process.  I’d also like to give a big thank you to John, Stephen and Angie over at Lighthouse for the Blind – Saint Louis.  You have all been extremely kind with your time and resources!

Getting started

One of the first things we got to purchase was an electronic Brailler and it was also the first to arrive which was quite exciting!

Now upon the same off-white desk, the small brown box is open and inside is a blue oval object which is the Braille Labeler, some black wires and white Braille tape, extra brown cardboard, a cd to install the program for the labeler with a white label on it, an instruction manual with a white cover and another instruction manual sticking out of another brown box that was inside the first box and contains the manual in Braille and has a blue plastic binding.
Everything needed to get started and the labeler itself (the blue object); there was even an instruction manual in Braille included.

Our wonderful volunteer, Deb, who does all our Brailling (and has been teaching me to read and write Braille) was very happy; she had been labeling everything in Braille by hand!  This allows her to do more in a short amount of time and keeps her hand from cramping and hurting.

The next order to arrive was the EZ-Form Brailler and Tactile Duplicator. This machine is what I use to produce the books that will contain tactile images from the show as well as tactile star charts.  It was very exciting when it showed up in the Planetarium!

 A 5'4" blonde woman in a blue flight suit is opening a very large brown cardboard package. The package is about three feet tall and two feet wide and across.
Opening the EZ-Brailler
 The EZ-Brailler (a square black object) sits in the large 3 foot by 2 foot by 2 foot box.  It is surrounded by clear bubble wrap.
Wonder how I am going to get all 108lbs of the EZ-Brailler onto my desk (thanks for your help, Justin and Andrea!)
 The EZ-Brailler (an object that looks like a black box with control dials on one side on a red plate attached to the box.  The top part of the box slides back to reveals the inside where the Braillon paper goes to form tactile book pages which currently has a tan piece of Braillon paper in it with Braille instructions on it), sits on an off white desk with the instruction booklet (which has a red binding) sitting next to it.
Ready to produce books!

Little Star and Friends Come to Life

While waiting for the different machines to arrive, I started work on creating the patterns and prototypes for the plush versions of the five main stars from The Little Star That Could

 The five main stuffed animal star characters sit on a table.  They all have human like faces (eyes, noses, mouths and some have hair).  A softball sized red stuffed animal star (Big Daddy) sits on a desk.  He has a black goatee and wears sunglasses.  Next to him on the right is an orange stuffed animal star (Mr. Old-Timer Orange Star) which is slightly bigger than the red star and has a white mustache and looks tired and old.  To the right of the orange star is a yellow star (Little Star/Sol) who is about the size of a baseball and is smiling.  To the right of the yellows star is a basketball sized white star (Pearl).  She has eyelashes, a pointy nose, is smiling gently and has cheek length hair that is also white.  Next to the white star on the right is a blue star (Mr. Angry Blue-White Star) who looks angry.  He has a bulbous nose and squinting eyes.  Behind all the plush stars is a picture of the stars all lined up together in the same order (red, orange, yellow, white, blue) pulled from the planetarium show, "The Little Star That Could."
Big Daddy, Mr. Old-Timer Orange Star, Little Star/Sol, Pearl, Mr. Angry Blue-White Star

Some will have some changes made in the future (i.e. the first couple made will look better).  My sewing skills have definitely improved since I started (at least I think they have). 

Three versions of the Little Star plush character sit next to each other on a white desk.  The first version on the left is the original hand sewn version.  It is a darker yellow than the other two.  His nose is very flat, as are his eyebrows and hair.  His mouth is just a simple sewn line of thread, but his eyes are the same as the other two versions, big white ovals with brown irises and black pupils.  There are rays/prominences shining out from around him.  The second version is in the middle has a lighter yellow color than the first.  His nose is now prominent and he has noticeable cheeks.  His lips are also bigger but his eyes remain the same as the first version's.  His rays are much smaller than the first version's and he lacks eyebrows.  His hair is very big and obvious.  The third version is on the right is very similar to the second version but with much more obvious rays and eyebrows.  The lips are toned down to a normal size and the hair is also smaller.
Little Star Version 1 (hand sewn, was with me all the way through being awarded the grant), Version 2 (first attempt at pattern making), and Version 3 (kid tested and approved)

Anyway, without further ado, let me introduce you to the Little Star character prototypes...

Big Daddy  
 Red satin fabric starting to be sewn into a ball shape sits on a sewing machine with black sunglasses nearby.  The red satin star is now complete.  He has rays protruding out from him, a large nose and lips, a black goatee and eyebrows and black sunglasses.  This is Big Daddy.
Mr. Old-Timer Orange Star  
 Some orange fabric is being sewn together into a ball shape.  It has a piece missing from the bottom of the ball as that is where the star's mouth will go.  Above where the piece is missing is the nose which sticks out a little.  The orange ball now has rays protruding out from it.  The eyes are old looking with brown irises and black pupils.  White eyebrows have been added and the whole character has been stuffed.
 A large piece of white fleece is draped over an off white sewing machine.  The white fleece star, Pearl is finished.  The star is now stuffed and has eyelashes (which are the false kind one finds in the cosmetics department) and brown eyebrows.
Mr. Angry Blue-White Star  
 Mr. Angry Blue-White Star is halfway complete.  The star is a medium to light blue.  He has small rays and is sewn together to be a ball but remains unstuffed  The star has a scowling mouth, squinting eyes, angry white eyebrows and small black pupils with brown irises on the whites of his eyes.  He has a wide nose and puffy cheeks.
Little Star/Sol (version 2)  
 Many small pieces of yellow fabric lie on a table and sewing machine.  Several are pinned with white and black pins and there is a pair of blue scissors and a green seam ripper on the table as well.  The blog's author, a woman of 5'4" with blonde hair, sits in a chair in her cubical.  She is wearing a blue NASA flight suit and is holding all of the plush star characters.  On her right leg is Pearl, the white star with eyelashes, white cheek length hair and brown eyes.  On the author's left leg sits Mr. Angry Blue-White Star, the blue star who has angry white eyebrows and squinting eyes.  On top of Pearl sits Big Daddy, satin and red with black sunglasses, a big nose and big lips.  On top of the blue star sits Mr. Old-Timer Orange Star with his white eyebrows and mustache and tired looking eyes.  On the author's head sits Little Star version 3 - smiling with big eyes and plump cheeks.  The blog's author is looking up at Little Star and smiling.  Behind the woman is an original poster for The Little Star That Could from it's second run in 1990.  The black background features cartoon images of the character that sit as plush toys in her lap and the words "A Children's Planetarium Show the Whole Family can Enjoy" in white.  A pink stripe runs across the top of the poster that says, "The McDonnell Star Theater Presents..." in white as well.

Blog Author with the Little Star Family (that is a poster for the show from its second run in 1990 behind me and the Little Star here is version 3)

It was a lot to come up with the patterns since I haven't really sewn for close to 10 years, but it was also a lot of fun.  It was great to work out the patterns, see the characters come to life and figure out what needed to be tweaked here and there.  I can't wait to make the final versions in more durable upholstery fabric!

Mold Making Mayhem

Next I had to start making the molds for the tactile books.  Each page will be made has to be made from a mold.  The process was probably the most involved and difficult from what I’m doing myself for the project!

 The grey clay mold of Little Star sits with about fifty silver pins in it on top of silver aluminum foil.  Next to it on the foil is the image of a red star with sunglasses, Big Daddy; orange star, Mr. Old-Timer Orange Star; yellow star, Little Star; white star, Pearl; and blue star, Mr. Angry Blue-White Star on a red background.  On the white desk sits a black desk organizer with pens, a black stapler, a tan tape dispenser, the black box with a red front and silver dials (the EZ-Brailler), and two pieces of Braillon paper.  The Braillon paper in the foreground has a severely raised image of Little Star.  The clay mold used to make the raised image shattered in the process.  The pieces are sitting on the Braillon paper.
Clay or Puff Paint Molds Drying (the clay had to be pierced with pins to allow air to pass through) Clay and Puff Paint definitely did not work :(
 On a piece of white paper in size 36 bold black font reads "Little Star is born in a cloud of gas and dust" over two lines, followed by "Little Star (a yellow star)" and "Page 1" over two more lines.  Under the second and third lines on light green strips is the Contracted Braille for these phrases.  Sitting in the shiny, silver EZ-Brailler's inside compartment is the first page of the Little Star Follow-Along book on Braillon paper.  Little Star is seen as a circle in the center of the page.  He has round eyes, a sideways oval nose and a smile with plump cheeks.  He has rays extending out all around him and two rays are very long, like jets spurting out.  Radiating out and around the afore described,  are three half circles on the left and three half circles on the right.  Around Little Star and the half circles is a light wavy and crinkly cloudy texture.  At the top of the page reads "Little Star is born in a cloud of gas and dust," in contracted Braille.
Our wonderful volunteer Deb has Brailled all of the text for the book The first page hot off the EZ-Brailler! Little Star is Born in a Cloud of Gas and Dust (mold made from stacking illustration board and puff paint)
 On top of the black EZ-Brailler sits many mold pages drying.  One is of the spiral Milky Way galaxy which is cloudy and given texture with red puff paint.  There is also the globular cluster (round, red and very bumpy) and Little Star (yellow and smiling and small), Little Star (yellow and smiling) meeting Big Daddy (a red star with sunglasses, a large nose and a goatee), Little Star meeting Mr. Old-Timer Orange Star (orange with a white mustache and large nose), and the line up of stars: a red star with sunglasses, Big Daddy; orange star, Mr. Old-Timer Orange Star; yellow star, Little Star; white star, Pearl; and blue star, Mr. Angry Blue-White Star on a red background.  
Many pages of molds drying  

The Model Begins

Finally, at the beginning of the new year, work began on the cut-away tactile model of the Planetarium's StarBay and Zeiss Universarium IX Projector!

We've done some work to figure out the layout on the casework, and while I knew it was going to be 24" in diameter, it was completely different experiencing how big that is, for lack of a better phrase, "in real life."  Below are some pictures of the process of mocking it up to get an idea.

 On a wooden table sits three more pieces of wood and on top of those sits a circle of wood that is 24" in diameter.  There is a stick of wood the same length as the diameter of the circle of wood with a screw holding it loosely to the circle.  Seen in the picture are the hands of a young man using a drill on the side of the stick.  He is dressed in a dark blue sweatshirt.  Also on the table is a yellow tape measure.  In the background sits a belt-sander and several other work benches and two-by-fours.  The room is very brightly lit and has plain white walls.  A young man can be seen cutting a square piece of wood on a band saw which as a white case and, like the head of the young man goes out of the frame of the picture.  The young man is wearing jeans, a sweatshirt and brown work boots.  There are many drawers behind him that are blue and hold small pieces of hardware such as screws.  The room is well lit and has a grey floor.  There are scraps off wood around the band saw.
Figuring out the base and dome size Cutting the shape of the dome with the bandsaw
 The young man dressed in a dark blue hooded sweatshirt and dark blue jeans holds the half circle of wood that represents the done over a cut away curved piece of wood that is propped up on silver square metal weights to represent the walls and dome of the StarBay.  It sits over the 24" diameter circle of wood that is the floor of the StarBay.  This all sits on top of a large wooden table with piece of wood around it.  Behind this table is a green table that holds the table saw and it has a white guide running perpendicular to the wood table on it as well.  The young man dressed in a dark blue hooded sweatshirt and dark blue jeans holds the half circle of wood that represents the done over a cut away curved piece of wood that is propped up on silver square metal weights to represent the walls and dome of the StarBay.  It sits over the 24" diameter circle of wood that is the floor of the StarBay.  This all sits on top of a large wooden table with piece of wood around it.  Behind this table is a green table that holds the table saw and it has a white guide running perpendicular to the wood table on it as well.
Giving an idea of the size of the model Zeiss model starts to appear as a postivie in foam! Side view of the Zeiss model's base adn plant projectors
It is going to be amazing when it is done (and special thanks again to Ian in our Exhibition Production Department for all your hard work)!

The Test Tactile Follow-Along Little Star Book is Complete!

I finished all the molds for the pages of the show at the end of January, and I've now printed a page from every mold!  Phew, did it get hot in my cubical, but it was great to see how every page came out in the Braillon.  I know I need to tweak some things, but I also need to have them vetted by their audience.  Hopefully soon I will have some pre-K through 2nd graders giving me feedback and testing them (and the plush characters)!  I thought it would be fun to post a video of how I make each page as well so you can see how the EZ-Brailler works:


I hope you enjoy it!  I also have a picture of some of the pages as well:

There is a green mat sitting on an off-white L-shaped desk.  On the green mat sits a gladware container that is empty, white measuring spoons, a can of salt, a white scrub brush with red bristles, a white strainer, a purple and black planetarium flyer and a tan metal lunch box with red boomerang shapes on it.  Also on the mat are several pages of the book that have been formed in the manila Braillon paper.  Each one features Little star meeting another character.  There is also a page sitting in the EZ-Brailler starting to curl on the edges from all the heat.  The EZ Brailler is a black box and the top half slides back when pushed by a red handle sticking off the front side of the top half.  On the front side of the bottom half is a red plaque with two silver and black heat control knobs, a black toggle switch, a silver button and green, orange and blue lights.
Several pages of the book

What started as a simple idea, turned into a labor of love and finally ended up becoming a reality.  We're hopefully going to open up a whole new world for our audience in April!

If you would like to read the original posts, you can find them by clicking here.

Written by Anna, James S. McDonnell Planetarium


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