By: Tiffany Whitfield

Anyone who has visited the Old Dominion University Michael and Kimthanh Lê Digital Theater and Planetarium last year has helped the facility reach a major milestone. More than 10,000 people visited the state-of-the art facility in 2023. This was no easy feat but was accomplished because of strategic relationships built up in the community and across K-12 schools in the Hampton Roads area. ODU’s planetarium is a destination stop that helps all visitors travel through our galaxy and beyond.

Justin Mason, director of Lê Digital Theater and Planetarium, has seen the planetarium go from blueprints to making history. Housed in the Chemistry Building on ODU’s campus, construction was completed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2021.

This innovative scientific space is a part of the ODU’s Department of Physics facilities and has become a hub of outreach in the community. It is the largest planetarium in higher education in Virginia.

Mason and his team have hosted a multitude of outreach events with organizations that reach a wide array of people. Some of the partnerships included the Girl Scouts of the Colonial Coast, the Elizabeth River Project, Beach Girls Rock, Reign in Science, and ODU Summer BLAST program. “These were some of our biggest and best events,” said Mason. “It has been a lot of work on me and my students to build those relationships and the name recognition amongst the community of Hampton Roads, but it has paid off in seeing the smiling faces when people leave the planetarium or hearing the excited screams from students when we fly through the solar system.”

Educational school field trips brought in 29 elementary schools with 1,700 kids from Norfolk Public Schools, Virginia Beach Public Schools and Suffolk Public Schools. Our most popular youth attendees were in fourth and fifth grades. Also, the planetarium brought in students from 10 middle schools with nearly 800 kids from both public and private schools in the region. “Surprisingly, we were very popular for summer camps with 17 shows and about 650 kids visiting in July and August alone,” said Mason.

Department of Physics Chair and Professor, Sebastian Kuhn said, “Planetarium shows are always attractive to the general public and to school children, and a great way to stimulate interest in the sciences. However, I attribute the outstanding success of our planetarium, coming back roaring from the shutdown during the pandemic, to Justin Mason’s long-term commitment and his infectious enthusiasm about the cosmos. We are hopeful that many of the young visitors he was able to attract for shows and summer camps may return to ODU one day to pursue a degree in Astrophysics!"

One of the biggest collaborations this year has been between the Lê Digital Theater and Planetarium and the Naro Video Collection at the Perry Library. “In late 2022, we started a monthly movie series at the Planetarium,” said Mason. The biggest turnout from them was for the classic anime Paprika (2006) which was shown last March. “Turnout from students was so great that we ended up having to turn people away as we were packed with no empty seats in the house. It was a great showing by students and their love for anime,” said Mason. 

Additional rise in numbers included weekly public shows, movie nights, visits to local schools virtually and events with community partners. “Our previous best year on record was 2019 with 8,900 people,” said Mason. “We have officially surpassed pre-pandemic numbers, I have ideas on how to continue to grow, and we are looking forward to another record year next year in 2024.”