Towards the end of the Space Age, there was a huge push to educate American kids in the physical sciences, engineering and aerospace. Most of the ~1100 planetariums in the country were built during or shortly after that time. Planetariums, as opposed to observatories, do not observe celestial objects in the night sky, but instead project a simulated night sky into a large hemispherical dome theater. They are a unique educational tool which can teach children about astronomy, physics, and technology, in a completely different way than the traditional classroom.
The Columbia Public Schools Planetarium was built in 1974, the year after Rock Bridge High School opened its doors. Every year since, elementary school through junior high school kids from Columbia Public Schools visit the planetarium to view the night sky in virtual reality.
Since it opened, the CPS Planetarium has hosted field trip visits from children across mid-Missouri, as far as Warrensburg, Moberly and Lake of the Ozarks. Unlike the big planetariums at the science museums in Kansas City and St. Louis, the CPS Planetarium has always made visits for large school groups affordable and easy. It operates as a non-profit as part of the public school system.
Over the years – from 1974 to the present – it is estimated that 200,000 children have visited the CPS Planetarium. That’s about double the current population of Columbia, and includes nearly all children raised in the Columbia area over the past forty years.
Columbia has always been a haven for strong scientific performance with the proximity of the University of Missouri; CPS students consistently outperform neighboring Missouri school districts in math and science, which can be partially attributed to the unique learning facilities and attention CPS students receive in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) areas.