The night sky may never look the same to some Greenback students, after a traveling planetarium set up in their gymnasium Nov. 6.

“When you study something really hard it becomes wondrous,” Billy Hix told third, fourth and fifth grade students while taking them on a tour of the night sky inside an inflated dome.

As students filed through a double-door airlock design and sat on the gym floor, inside the bubble, a projector showed video from the international space station, about 240 miles above Earth.

While kids may just see dots above them at night, Hix told them, “I see a sky full of stories,” and he started sharing constellations as he told the Greek myth of Cassiopeia, flipping between images of the stars with projections on them of the characters from the myth of the vain queen, her daughter Aphrodite, the hero Perseus and the monster Cetus.

Nearing the completion of an hour-long program, he showed them the comparative size of our sun to Antares and Betelgeuse, and then explained how much smaller Earth is than the sun. “The earth is a speck of dust,” he told them.

Delivering the presentations is his hobby and his gift to students in rural schools. “I hope it changes the way you see your world,” he told the kids at Greenback School.

His goal isn’t for students to become astronomers but to become excited about learning and “see how cool it is to be scientifically literate,” he explained in a later interview.

“They’re going to face unbelievable challenges with climate change,” Hix said. “These kids are going to have to make serious decisions.”

Rural roots

“I have never forgotten where I came from and how frustrated I was,” Hix said.

That’s why he targets rural schools with his presentations. He usually delivers three or four a week near his home in Shelbyville, but each year the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network with support from Battelle sends him to 10 schools farther across the state.

Greenback School made the list this year. Hix had been hoping to visit, since he met assistant Principal Tonya Cope several years ago.

“I’ve never, ever forgotten how sad I was growing up that nobody wanted to do anything with my school,” said Hix, who attended a rural Tennessee school with only seven students in his grade. The only presentation, year after year, was someone from the co-op showing how to read the numbers on a bag of fertilizer and different tobacco seeds, he said.

When he was 8 or 9 or 10, like the children who visit his portable planetarium, Hicks was fascinated by the astronauts and could rattle off their names. People gave him articles from Life magazine, and he hung the photos in his room before man landed on the moon.

His father couldn’t read or write, and Hix said, “I didn’t even know how you go to college.” Yet as a fifth grader he promised his mother that he was going to work in a “cool job.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree from Tennessee Technological University, he earned two master’s degrees from Middle Tennessee State University, in computer science and science education. He also did graduate work in astronomy.

Hix worked at NASA as a science liaison officer in the education department, contributing to projects such as the first “Toys in Space” videos. Returning to Tennessee to care for a parent, he taught future science teachers and is now professor emeritus at Motlow State Community College. Retiring just gave him time to take his show on the road.

Hix’s hobby

About eight years ago Hix bought a Go-Dome portable planetarium for about $14,000 and paired it with open source software he runs off a laptop computer.

More than 68,000 students have seen his presentations. He wore out the first dome about a year ago and is on the second.

The domes were designed to set up at facilities such as sciences centers, not be set up and taken down several times a week.

Hix believes he was the first to use the dome for traveling exhibits and now more than a dozen others are doing the same.

He understands the challenges of rural schools. If he set up in a building, they couldn’t afford the transportation to bring students to him. So he and his wife, both now retired educators, travel with the gear on a trailer, setting up in less than an hour. No school pays for the presentation.

Hix also works to subtly incorporate science education standards into his presentations, such as discussing the horizon and other vocabulary words. “I study those standards, but I don’t want anybody to know that I’m teaching them,” he said.

“The planetarium is not my only dog and pony show,” Hix said. The first three weeks of June he holds three-day summer camps for students from rural schools. “We make rocket fuel out of powdered coffee creamer,” he said in describing some of the science activities.

On Wednesdays he rents a school bus and takes the 20 kids each week to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Hix pays the costs, although sometimes a business or other organization contributes.

When he was in fifth grade, a relative gave Hix a NASA patch that he carried to college and all the way to his job at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Eventually he gave that patch to another young student who impressed him, and now he makes sure the campers all receive a patch too. For him, Hix said, that original patch was the sign that he was going to make it.

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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