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Trustees approve 2020 operating budget

The University of Toledo Board of Trustees approved June 17 a balanced operating budget for fiscal year 2020 that positions the institution to continue to make progress on its strategic priorities. The approximately $770 million budget includes an investment in the people who make UToledo successful.

Because the state of Ohio biennium operating budget continues to work through the legislature containing language that limits tuition and fee increases, the University’s budget leaves undergraduate tuition for continuing students not part of the Tuition Guarantee unchanged at this time. The board approved a resolution that authorizes UToledo President Sharon L. Gaber to modify tuition and fees if permitted by law.

The budget does include differential tuition increases in selected graduate and professional programs.

In an effort to make online programs more accessible, trustees approved a resolution to reduce the non-Ohio surcharge to just $5 per credit hour for students enrolled exclusively in online programs.

The budget reflects a 2 percent wage increases for professional staff and faculty members who are not part of a bargaining unit. University employees who are members of unions will receive increased compensation as determined by their collective bargaining agreements.

In other board action, two new undergraduate degrees in data analytics were approved and will be sent to the Ohio Department of Higher Education for consideration.

The bachelor of arts degree in data analytics in the College of Arts and Letters has an emphasis on social sciences and will prepare students for careers that focus on interpreting and applying structured data for clients. The bachelor of science degree in data science in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics is designed to prepare students for careers that involve statistical tools to extract meaning from large data sets for specific applications.

Trustees also approved a reorganization of departments in the Judith Herb College of Education to combine programs into two areas — one related to teacher licensure and one focused on the study of education.

The Department of Curriculum and Instruction and the Department of Early Childhood, Higher Education and Special Education will be combined and renamed the Department of Teacher Education. The Department of Educational Foundations and Leadership and the faculty in the Higher Education and Education Technology programs will be combined and renamed the Department of Educational Studies.

At its final meeting of the fiscal year, the Board of Trustees elected officers for the 2019-20 year. Mary Ellen Pisanelli will continue to serve as chair, and Al Baker will continue as vice chair.

The June meeting completed the term of Sharon Speyer, president of the Northwest Ohio Region for Huntington National Bank. She was given the title of trustee emeritus, along with Steven Cavanaugh, who resigned upon beginning his new role as ProMedica’s chief financial officer. A proclamation also was read to recognize student trustee Hedyeh Elahinia, a junior in the Jesup Scott Honors College studying biology, who completed two years of service on the board.

UToledo alum, flight director for International Space Station leading NASA’s launch of commercial crew vehicle

After an eight-year hiatus, NASA is one step closer to rocketing its astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil, instead of buying seats aboard Russian spacecraft.

An alumnus of The University of Toledo will serve as flight director for the launch of the unmanned test flight of the Boeing Starliner slated for late August, about a month after the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Dr. Robert Dempsey, NASA flight director for the International Space Station at Johnson Space Center’s Mission Control in Houston, is leading the launch of a commercial crew vehicle. He received a master’s degree and Ph.D. in physics from UToledo in 1987 and 1991. Image courtesy of Nasa

“The CST-100 Starliner is designed as a space taxi,” said Dr. Robert Dempsey, NASA flight director for the International Space Station at Johnson Space Center’s Mission Control in Houston. “I’ve been working on this project for eight years, longer than it took me to earn my Ph.D. at The University of Toledo. I joke that I have a doctorate in Starliner now.”

Dempsey, who received a master’s degree and Ph.D. in physics from UToledo in 1987 and 1991, is working around the clock to train and troubleshoot for the upcoming launch, which — if successful — could lead to a crewed flight by the end of the year.

“I will be flight director for the rendezvous and docking,” Dempsey said. “I’m excited because the current timeframe means the Starliner would dock on my birthday, Aug. 18, which would be a cool present.”

The Starliner is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a public-private partnership in which the agency contracted with Boeing and SpaceX to fly crews to the space station, an orbiting laboratory.

This NASA graphic shows the Boeing Starliner that is scheduled for an unmanned test flight in August. Dr. Robert Dempsey, UToledo alumnus, is the flight director for the launch.

The goal of the Commercial Crew Program is to have safe, reliable and cost-effective access to and from the International Space Station and foster commercial access to other potential low-Earth orbit destinations.

It’s an expansion of NASA’s success in unmanned cargo supply ships.

The vision is for private companies to someday fly customers to hotels in space and other celestial destinations.

“When we look at the space program, the Commercial Crew Program is one example of what to expect over the next 50 years,” Dempsey said. “NASA will focus strategically on big-vision projects like getting to Mars, but private companies can invest and develop technology for low-Earth orbit transportation. We’ll focus on the hard stuff at NASA so that down the road Boeing and SpaceX can launch commercial vehicles to take customers to the moon or Mars.”

Leading up to the debut launch of Starliner, Dempsey spends his time thinking of everything that could go wrong on the mission and figuring out how to fix it.

It’s familiar territory.

Dempsey started working at NASA 21 years ago when the agency was creating the International Space Station.

“We were about three years from launching the first piece of the space station,” Dempsey said. “The design was mostly done, but the software was immature. I helped out with finishing the software.”

It’s a dream career sparked 50 years ago by one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

Dempsey was 6 years old when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon July 20, 1969.

“I remember watching the lunar landing on television and thinking, ‘I want to do that,’” Dempsey said. “I have never wavered. Here I am today doing that work.”

UToledo students’ winning biodesign projects to compete in New York

Two groups of UToledo students will compete against more than 30 teams from around the world Thursday and Friday, June 20 and 21, at the Biodesign Challenge Summit at the Parsons School of Design and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The two teams, PlastiGrow and btilix, won the chance to travel to the Big Apple at the UToledo competition this spring at the Toledo Museum of Art Glass Pavilion.

Btilix team members are, from left, Tyler Saner, Sarah Mattei, Courtney Kinzel, Timothy Wolf and Sherin Aburidi.

Presented by The University of Toledo, the Biodesign Challenge offers art and design, bioengineering, and environmental sciences students the opportunity to envision future applications of biotechnology and biomaterials that address complex global challenges. Students are connected with community experts to develop innovative solutions through interdisciplinary research and iterative prototyping.

“Normally, our jurors award one team with the honor of competing in New York, but this year we have the opportunity to award not just one team — a team that will compete against all schools — but we are also putting up for consideration another team for a special prize, so we are happy to announce our two winning teams, btilix and PlastiGrow,” Eric Zeigler, assistant professor of art, said.

Students on the PlastiGrow team are, from left, McKenzie Dunwald, Michael Socha, Colin Chalmers and Ysabelle Yrad.

The overall winner of the UToledo competition was btilix. This team developed a disinfectant spray for combatting antibiotic-resistant superbugs. The students on the btilix team are Tyler Saner, art; Sarah Mattei, environmental science; Courtney Kinzel, environmental science; Timothy Wolf, bioengineering; and Sherin Aburidi, bioengineering.

The UToledo team, PlastiGrow, is applying to compete in New York for the ORTA Sustainability in Textiles Prize. The team engineered a biodegradable plastic material that can be used in the creation of everyday products to greatly reduce the cost and energy spent on waste and recycling efforts. Team members are McKenzie Dunwald, art; Michael Socha, bioengineering; Colin Chalmers, art; and Ysabelle Yrad, environmental science.

For more information on the competition, visit the Biodesign Challenge website.

Families invited on cruise to learn how UToledo monitors health of rivers, Lake Erie

Scientists and students at The University of Toledo work tirelessly to study the waters of Lake Erie and its tributaries in the fight against harmful algal blooms and invasive Asian carp. They also evaluate potential for reintroducing historic fish, such as sturgeon.

This summer, families are invited to board the Sandpiper and cruise the Maumee River while learning how researchers at the UToledo Lake Erie Center collect water information.

“The Maumee River may look like just a muddy river, but it’s full of life,” Dr. Thomas Bridgeman, UToledo professor of ecology and director of the UToledo Lake Erie Center, said. “We show kids how sediment and algae affect water clarity, but they also get to see the tiny, shrimp-like animals that are eating the algae and — in turn — feeding the fish that make western Lake Erie the ‘Walleye Capital of the World.’”

The two-hour “Discover the River” cruise starts at 10 a.m. every Saturday through August at the dock at Water Street and Jefferson Avenue near Promenade Park in downtown Toledo.

Admission to the 100-passenger Sandpiper is $19. Children younger than 12 are $11. Purchase tickets in advance on the Sandpiper website.

UToledo astronomer wins observing time on Hubble after most competitive cycle in history

This summer’s 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 moon landing also marks a major life milestone for The University of Toledo astronomer who is a world leader in her particularly male-dominated field.

“I was born in 1969, two months after Neil Armstrong took one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Dr. Rupali Chandar, professor of astronomy, said. “I am delighted every time the anniversary comes up in July — the moon landing epitomized the human spirit of discovery, and that same spirit drives my research to understand our universe of galaxies.”

Dr. Rupali Chandar, professor of astronomy, was awarded 40 hours of observing time with the Hubble Telescope between July and early 2020. Her work will focus on star formation in nearby galaxies.

Chandar, who studies star formation in galaxies far, far away with her feet firmly on Earth, is gearing up to once again use NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope for her research.

However, this year is extra-special for two reasons.

Chandar not only won coveted observing time in the most competitive cycle in history, she also leads the Space Telescope Users Committee.

Chandar heads the group of 12 astrophysicists from around the world who act as the direct interface between astronomers who want to use the telescope and top-level management of the Hubble project. Committee members hail from places with prestigious astronomical communities such as Harvard and Arizona State, as well as Paris, Spain and Italy.

She is the second UToledo astronomer to lead this powerful committee. Dr. Michael Cushing, associate professor of physics and astronomy, and director of Ritter Planetarium, led the committee in 2015 and 2016.

“It’s unusual for one university to have had more than one representative in the group — let alone two people who have led the committee’s work,” said Dr. Karen Bjorkman, interim provost and Distinguished University Professor of Astronomy. “Dr. Chandar is a shining star for women in science and contributes significantly to The University of Toledo’s research excellence in astronomy and astrophysics.”

Even as a child, Dr. Rupali Chandar was looking skyward. She was born two months after the Apollo moon landing and is shown in this photo with her mother, Sneh Chandar.

Every year astronomers around the world vie for precious minutes of Hubble’s view of unfathomably distant celestial targets. It is NASA’s flagship space telescope.

“I’ve used Hubble data from the beginning of my career, and this cycle was the most challenging one in my experience, with only one in 12 proposals being successful,” Chandar said. “I am thrilled that my proposal was approved.”

As head of the Space Telescope Users Committee, she helped implement the dual-anonymous selection process that debuted this cycle, which means the names of the proposers and reviewers are made known only after the review process is complete.

“Hubble is leading the way in emphasizing the science and ideas that are proposed, and not who is doing the proposing,” Chandar said. “Although it’s too early to tell, this double-blind review process has the potential to reduce inherent bias.”

Chandar, a mother of two who joined the UToledo faculty in 2007, was awarded approximately 40 hours of observing time spread out between July and early 2020. Her work will help understand star formation in some of the most intensely star-forming galaxies found in the nearby universe.

And by nearby, she means those 130 million to 300 million light years away.

These galaxies are generating stars at a pace about 100 times faster than the Milky Way.

“In the modern-day nearby universe, most galaxies form stars at a modest rate,” Chandar said. “I will be observing a sample of the few actively merging, nearby galaxies that have rates of star formation that are as high as galaxies in the early universe. Studying them gives us insight into what was happening when the universe was young and galaxies were just starting to form.”

Astronomers can’t study details of star formation in early galaxies because they’re too far away. We’re talking billions and billions of light years.

However, astronomers believe new, more powerful telescopes in the pipeline, like the James Webb Space Telescope, will make it possible to study the evolution of the earliest stars in greater detail than ever before.

As Chandar looks ahead to the next 50 years of space exploration, it’s vitally important for her to inspire children, especially girls, to take the step toward science.

“Girls in elementary school are just as interested in science as boys. It’s alarming how much that changes during middle school,” Chandar said. “When I was in fifth and sixth grades, I read about the formation of the solar system and wrote reports about black holes, but I didn’t think you could do astronomy as a career until I took a class during my sophomore year of college.”

She ended up earning her Ph.D. in astrophysics at Johns Hopkins University in 2000.

“Good professors make a difference,” Chandar said. “Without many female astronomers around, my mentors have been almost exclusively men. Their support has been critical for achieving my dream career.”

Chandar has one more connection to the moon landing, besides being born in 1969.

“I was lucky enough to hear Neil Armstrong’s last public address at the July 21, 2012, First Light Gala to celebrate the debut of the Discovery Channel Telescope when The University of Toledo joined as a scientific partner,” Chandar said. “We were all devastated when Neil died just a few weeks after that.”

As part of the partnership, UToledo students and researchers use the Discovery Channel Telescope at Lowell Observatory in Arizona to collect data on a wide variety of objects, from the closest failed stars known as brown dwarfs to star-forming regions within our own galaxy to more distant merging galaxies.

The 4.3-meter telescope located south of Flagstaff overlooks the Verde Valley and is the fifth largest telescope in the continental United States and one of the most technologically advanced.

The Discovery Channel Telescope partnership has been a boon to UToledo astronomers and helped put the astronomy department on the map.

“It’s another powerful tool at our fingertips to continue NASA’s mission and push technology to new frontiers over the next 50 years,” Chandar said.

Sensors for Lake Erie early-warning buoy network to get tuneup for algal bloom season

Scientists and water treatment plant operators throughout the region are visiting The University of Toledo Lake Erie Center to make sure equipment that measures water quality throughout algal bloom season is ready to be deployed in buoys across Lake Erie.

“It’s like in the old movies when the mission leader says, ‘Let’s synchronize our watches,’ before the team splits up,” said Dr. Tom Bridgeman, UToledo professor of ecology and director of the UToledo Lake Erie Center. “This collaboration helps to ensure conformity of data coming from the probes for the next few months.”

The UToledo water quality and sensor buoy rides the waves off the shore of the Maumee Bay State Park Lodge in Oregon, Ohio.

Partners in the early-warning buoy network will do the calibration between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Thursday, May 30. Those include researchers from Ohio State University and Bowling Green State University, as well as water treatment plant operators in Cleveland, Toledo, Oregon, Elyria, Avon, Sandusky, Lorain, Ottawa and Huron. LimnoTech, YSI and Fondriest Environmental are local companies providing technology support.

UToledo’s water quality and sensor buoy annually rides the waves off the shore of the Maumee Bay State Park Lodge and Conference Center in Oregon. It is part of the Great Lakes Observing System’s early-warning network of buoys throughout the western Lake Erie basin that provides live data vital in the assessment of harmful algal blooms.

“We go out on our research vessel at least once a week for sampling throughout the summer, but the buoys are out there all the time,” Bridgeman said. “Even when it’s too rough for boats to be on the lake, the buoys can alert if something is developing or changing quickly.”

“With harmful algal bloom season just around the corner, this event brings together water treatment plant operators and UToledo, BGSU and industry experts to prepare the instruments that are a part of Lake Erie’s early-warning system,” Ed Verhamme, project engineer at LimnoTech, said.

The buoys are equipped with what is called the YSI EXO sonde, a black and blue instrument consisting of several probes to measure various water quality parameters, including how much blue-green algae are present, water temperature, clarity, oxygen levels, turbidity and pH.

It’s one piece of the battle plan to track and combat the growing harmful algal bloom in order to sound the early warning for water treatment plant operators as they work to provide safe public drinking water.

“We are watching very closely and are prepared,” Bridgeman said.

Inexpensive agricultural waste product can remove microcystin from water, new UToledo research finds

Scientists at The University of Toledo have discovered that rice husks can effectively remove microcystin from water, a finding that could have far-reaching implications for communities along the Great Lakes and across the developing world.

An abundant and inexpensive agricultural byproduct, rice husks have been investigated as a water purification solution in the past. However, this is the first time they have been shown to remove microcystin, the toxin released by harmful algal blooms.

Dr. Jon Kirchhoff, right, Dr. Dragan Isailovic, center, and doctoral student David Baliu-Rodriguez have published a paper, along with UToledo graduates, Dr. Dilrukshika Palagama and Dr. Amila Devasurendra, about using rice husks to remove microcystin from water.

The results of the study were recently published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

“Delivering safe water is critical, and finding an economically viable solution to deliver safe water to people all over the world is going to be really important. The ability of this simple material to be powerful enough to address this issue is impressive,” said Dr. Jon Kirchhoff, Distinguished University Professor and chair of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department.

The research, led by Kirchhoff and Dr. Dragan Isailovic, associate professor of chemistry in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, used organic rice husks that were treated with hydrochloric acid and heated to 250 degrees Celsius.

The rice husks were then dispersed in a series of water samples collected from Lake Erie during the 2017 harmful algal bloom to measure how much of the toxin they could absorb.

UToledo researchers say rice husks are effective at removing microcystin from water. In addition, the rice husks are economical and, after soaking up microcystin, can be heated to destroy the toxins and create silica particles that can be used for other applications.

Researchers found the rice husks removed more than 95 percent of microcystin MC-LR — the most common type found in Lake Erie — in concentrations of up to 596 parts per billion (ppb). Even in concentrations approaching 3,000 ppb, more than 70 percent of the MC-LR was removed, and other types of MCs were removed as well.

“We looked at the removal of microcystins from real environmental samples and the material has performed really well,” Isailovic said. “We are talking about extremely high concentrations of microcystins originating from cyanobacterial cells. Normally during summer, we have much, much lower concentrations in Lake Erie.”

Devasurendra

The United States Environmental Protection Agency recommends a 10-day drinking water guideline that young children not drink water containing more than a total of 0.3 ppb of microcystin and school-age children and adults not drink water containing more than a total of 1.6 ppb of microcystin.

Beyond their effectiveness, rice husks have a number of other appealing attributes. They’re cheap — researchers paid $14.50 for half a cubic foot, and buying in bulk would bring that price down significantly — and they’re able to be repurposed.

Heating microcystin-laden rice husks to 560 degrees Celsius destroys the toxins and produces silica particles, which can be used in other applications.

Palagama

The researchers are hopeful their discovery could be scaled up beyond the lab to develop a more environmentally friendly method for treating water that has been contaminated by harmful algal blooms or cheap but effective filtration systems for the developing world.

“We could potentially use this readily available material to purify water before it even gets into Lake Erie,” Isailovic said. “There are engineering solutions that need to be done, but one of our dreams is to apply what we develop in our labs to provide safe drinking water.”

Other authors of the study were doctoral students Dr. Dilrukshika Palagama and Dr. Amila Devasurendra, who first proposed looking at rice husks as a way to remove microcystin and have since graduated from UToledo, and current doctoral student David Baliu-Rodriguez.

UToledo researcher using drones to measure algal blooms to speak May 23 at National Museum of the Great Lakes

Determined to protect drinking water and avert another water crisis, a scientist at The University of Toledo deploys drones to snap a quick assessment of water quality during algal bloom season, no boat or satellite required.

Dr. Richard Becker, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences, will give a presentation titled “Using Drones to Answer Questions in Environmental Science” Thursday, May 23, at 7 p.m. at the National Museum of the Great Lakes, located at 1701 Front St. in Toledo.

Dr. Richard Becker uses drones to help monitor water quality during algal bloom season.

The researcher will discuss his use of low-flying unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor the health of Lake Erie.

The free, public event is the final presentation in the 2018-19 UToledo Lake Erie Center Lecture Series.

“As remote sensing technology advances, monitoring lakes using satellites, aircraft and drones is becoming more effective,” Dr. Tom Bridgeman, professor of ecology and director of the UToledo Lake Erie Center, said. “Dr. Becker’s research in coupling remote sensing data with boat-based water monitoring has improved the accuracy of harmful algal bloom assessments. Also, his research to develop drones as inexpensive tools to measure algal blooms is helping to fill a gap left by more expensive methods.”

A shuttle will be available to transport visitors from UToledo’s Main Campus to the National Museum of the Great Lakes and back. The shuttle will depart at 6:15 p.m. from the south side of Bowman-Oddy Laboratories. Passengers must reserve a spot by Tuesday, May 21.

Email lakeeriecenter@utoledo.edu or call 419.530.8360 to make a reservation for the shuttle.

Breakthrough in new material to harness solar power could transform energy

The most affordable, efficient way to harness the cleanest, most abundant renewable energy source in the world is one step closer to reality.

The University of Toledo physicist pushing the performance of solar cells to levels never before reached made a significant breakthrough in the chemical formula and process to make the new material.

Dr. Zhaoning Song holds a perovskite solar cell minimodule he developed with Dr. Yanfa Yan. The higher-efficiency, lower-cost solar cell technology could revolutionize energy generation around the globe.

Working in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab, Dr. Yanfa Yan, UToledo professor of physics, envisions the ultra-high efficiency material called a tandem perovskite solar cell will be ready to debut in full-sized solar panels in the consumer market in the near future.

Perovskites, compound materials with a special crystal structure formed through chemistry, would replace silicon, which — for now — remains the solar-cell material of choice for converting the sun’s light into electrical energy.

“We are producing higher-efficiency, lower-cost solar cells that show great promise to help solve the world energy crisis,” Yan said. “The meaningful work will help protect our planet for our children and future generations. We have a problem consuming most of the fossil energies right now, and our collaborative team is focused on refining our innovative way to clean up the mess.”

The new research paper, which is published in the journal Science, outlines how the photovoltaics team is fine-tuning a mix of lead and tin to advance the technology closer to its maximum efficiency. Efforts have currently brought the efficiency of the new solar cell to about 23 percent. In comparison, silicon solar panels on the market today have around an 18 percent efficiency rating.

Scientists used a chemical compound called guanidinium thiocyanate to dramatically improve the structural and optoelectronic properties of the lead-tin mixed perovskite films.

“Science is the top academic journal in the world, alongside Nature, which published other research by Dr. Yan only five months ago after he discovered a single material that produces white light, which could boost the efficiency and appeal of LED bulbs,” Dr. Sanjay Khare, professor and chair of the UToledo Department of Physics and Astronomy, said. “His significant sustainability work at The University of Toledo can help power the world using clean energy.”

About five years ago Yan’s team at UToledo identified the ideal properties of perovskites, and he has since focused his 20 years of experience on producing an all-perovskite tandem solar cell that brings together two different solar cells to increase the total electrical power generated by using two different parts of the sun’s spectrum.

Last month the U.S. Department of Energy awarded Yan a $1.1 million grant to continue his research in collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Lab.

“This is the material we’ve been waiting for for a long time,” Yan said. “The solar industry is watching and waiting. Some have already started investing in this technology.”

Yan is an expert in theory of defect physics and electronic properties in semiconductors, materials synthesis and thin-film solar-cell fabrication.

“Our UToledo research is ongoing to make cheaper and more efficient solar cells that could rival and even outperform the prevailing silicon photovoltaic technology,” said Dr. Zhaoning Song, research assistant professor in the UToledo Department of Physics and Astronomy, and co-author on the study. “Our tandem solar cells with two layers of perovskites deliver high-power conversion efficiency and have the potential to bring down production costs of solar panels, which is an important advance in photovoltaics.”

While Yan’s team has improved the quality of the materials and the process to manufacture them at a low cost, more progress needs to be made.

“The material cost is low and the fabrication cost is low, but the lifetime of the material is still an unknown,” Song said. “We need to continue to increase efficiency and stability.”

“Also, lead is considered a toxic substance,” Yan said. “I am determined to work with the solar industry to ensure solar panels made of this material can be recycled so they don’t cause harm to the environment.”

Families invited to Earth and Space Exploration Day at Ritter Planetarium May 18

A graduate student at The University of Toledo who aspires to someday teach at a planetarium went above and beyond to elevate an annual event aimed at inspiring and motivating children to engage with science.

From playing hide-and-seek moon using binoculars to creating a pocket solar system to scale to using a tub of water to explain rising sea levels and climate change, this year’s Earth and Space Exploration Day at Ritter Planetarium will feature a new set of hands-on activities in astronomy and earth science using interactive demonstrations in collaboration with NASA and the National Informational STEM Education (NISE) Network.

Heidi Kuchta received kits from NASA and the National Informational STEM Education Network that will be distributed during Earth and Space Exploration Day Saturday, May 18, at Ritter Planetarium.

Heidi Kuchta, who started working as an assistant at Ritter Planetarium five years ago as a freshman, applied for and secured one of 350 kits distributed nationwide.

“I love that families in our community will have something incredibly interesting to do and stuff to take home,” Kuchta said. “With the support of the NISE Network and NASA, we are able to add a wonderful spark to our annual Astronomy Day by expanding and escalating the overall fun, learning experience for children.”

Earth and Space Exploration Day will take place Saturday, May 18, from noon to 4 p.m. at Ritter Planetarium. The free, public event also will include planetarium shows running in full dome every hour starting at 12:30 p.m., as well as solar observing, weather permitting.

“From the beginning, Heidi has shown tremendous dedication to our outreach efforts,” Alex Mak, associate director of Ritter Planetarium, said. “This workshop is just one example of her ability to expand upon our traditional educational mission.”

Children use binoculars and play hide-and-seek moon with a kit from NASA and the National Informational STEM Education Network.

Kuchta earned her bachelor’s degree in physics and geology from UToledo last year and is pursuing her master’s in an accelerated teaching program in the Judith Herb College of Education.

“A lot of planetariums are in schools, so I thought this innovative path would be a good way to combine education and what I love to do here,” Kuchta said. “At a planetarium, we only have students for a short period of time. They’ll learn here, but, more importantly, it will get them asking questions, expand their curiosity, and maybe nourish the dream of becoming the scientists who get people to Mars or become the first person to walk on Mars.”

Kuchta’s connection to the cosmos began as a baby, according to family legend.

“My mom took me to a planetarium at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History when I was a few months old because she was chaperoning a trip for one of my older siblings,” Kuchta said.

Ritter Planetarium proved to be the deciding factor in choosing a college.

“During a campus tour, I was hooked when we walked through the planetarium and checked out the telescope,” Kuchta said.

Kuchta helps put on planetarium shows that explain current celestial phenomena and leads tours from different groups of visitors ranging from residents of a senior center to a preschool class. She also helps create content.

“Heidi is creative, energetic, and always willing to find new ways to help people learn more about the universe,” Mak said. “She has a bright future.”