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Connecting students to the stars

Posted 5 a.m. Thursday, March 21, 2024

Robert Allen, longtime UWL planetarium director, has led public planetarium programs for people of all ages for more than 50 years.

Longtime planetarium director unravels mysteries of the night sky for over 50 years

Robert Allen directs his laser pointer to a cluttered path of stars projected on the UW-La Crosse planetarium dome.

“What is this faint, fuzzy patch of light?,” he asks a group of second graders from Westby Elementary School. “I’ll give you a clue. It’s a candy bar.”

“The Milky Way!” the group yells.

Allen peppers his program for the school group with plenty of kid-centered questions, engaging them to identify different “connect-the-dot pictures in the sky” and share insights about “the brightest object out in the evening.” Each year, approximately 3,500 students step through the doors of the UW-La Crosse planetarium, nestled in the basement of Cowley Hall. 

With nearly 50 years of directing planetarium programs under his belt, Allen has mastered the art of connecting everyday people to the wonders of astronomy. From stars to planets, constellations to meteors, and various phases of the moon, Allen's educational approach captivates not only school groups but also a broad spectrum of the public eager to unravel the mysteries of the night sky. Monthly public planetarium programs and Friday night light and laser shows set to rock music, dubbed “Album Encounters,” draw in enthusiasts looking to better understand their backyard as the sun goes down.

Since public programs began in 1967, over 400,000 people have marveled at the wonders of the cosmos within the planetarium's confines, averaging about 7,300 visitors annually, with the exception of 2021 when it closed due to the pandemic.

Westby second-grader Aubrey Hoff shares her favorite part of the show was “Jake,” a star projector positioned in the heart of the room. This robotic marvel not only speaks but also showcases images of stars and brings constellations to vivid life through picture projections. With 2,000 pinholes and 200 lenses, Jake can be finely tuned to present an accurate portrayal of the night sky from any location on Earth, at any hour, and during any era. Despite its nearly century-old technology, the star projector continues to dazzle audiences.

The dawn of campus stargazing

Robert Allen in his early days at the UWL planetarium. In addition to his UWL work, Allen also founded the La Crosse Area Astronomical Society in 1978 and served as president from 1978-2007. He is still a member of the group, serving as treasurer.  Photo courtesy of Murphy Library Special Collections.

UWL’s planetarium, completed in 1966 within the basement of Cowley Hall, emerged amidst the fervor of the space race. Just a few years prior, in May 1961, John F. Kennedy had pledged to land a man on the moon within a decade, igniting a fierce competition with the Soviet Union to assert American dominance in space exploration.

“The federal government was invested in astronomy education and there was this big push for more scientists and engineers,” recalls Allen.

During that era, the government would foot half the bill for a star projector at public educational institutions, explains Allen. The planetarium's inaugural director was T.V. Smith, with Allen assuming the position shortly after graduating from University of Michigan. He officially took the helm in 1969 when he accepted a teaching position in astronomy at UWL, concurrently serving as the planetarium's part-time director. 

In its formative years, the planetarium's popularity surged, with attendance doubling within the first two decades, from 5,000 to 10,000 patrons annually. Word of mouth played a significant role in spreading the allure of the night sky programs, with teachers recommending the experience to their peers and astronomy enthusiasts sharing the excitement with friends. Much of the planetarium's success can be attributed to Allen's unwavering commitment to delivering captivating programs.

“He's put his heart and soul into the planetarium, and the reason we still have one running is because he has been willing to work on it,” says Shauna Sallmen, UWL professor of physics, who took over Allen’s astronomy teaching role when he retired.

The planetarium programs offer a much earlier introduction to astronomy than Allen experienced in his youth. Growing up, he didn’t own a telescope, and his knowledge of constellations was limited to the Big Dipper and Orion’s Belt. A deeper dive into astronomy awaited him in college, where his fascination with flight initially led him to pursue a career as a pilot. However, an introductory astronomy class during his junior year altered his trajectory, catching the attention of faculty members who encouraged him to consider graduate studies.

While higher education was uncharted territory for Allen's family, he embraced the opportunity, earning a master’s degree in astronomy from the University of Michigan. As a graduate student, he taught introductory astronomy courses, laying the groundwork for his eventual transition to the role of planetarium director at UWL.

“I went down the path of life where it led me,” he says. “A lot of it was serendipity.”

Allen retired from UWL in 2003 but continued to serve as the part-time planetarium director. He eventually stepped back fully in 2006, only to return in 2011 to resume his part-time duties. Leading regular programs, managing publicity, maintaining records, and updating equipment are just a few facets of the directorship that keep him engaged. When asked about his enduring commitment to the role, even in retirement, Allen quips, “I’ll give you one word: workaholic.”

“I have a passion for it,” he adds. “I enjoy sharing this knowledge with a broader audience. Some individuals might never have the opportunity to learn about astronomy if they didn't visit the planetarium. The planetarium just spills over into my passion for the night sky.”


Volunteers play a crucial role in the planetarium's operations, with longtime volunteer Tom Thompson stationed at the entrance throughout programs to assist and guide attendees during breaks. Student volunteers like Humayra Tuba and Naomi Golisch contribute significantly to the smooth functioning of the programs, ensuring that visitors have an enriching experience.

Related links

Visit the UWL planetarium 

Learn more about the La Crosse Area Astronomical Society. The group meets regularly in a variety of locations to observe and learn about the night sky.

Planetarium Facebook page 

La Crosse Area Astronomical Society Facebook group


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