UW-La Crosse Planetarium a rocking good time

Published On: Feb 11 2013 08:56:42 AM CST
LA CROSSE, Wis. -

After more than 30 years of teaching astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Bob Allen decided to call it quits in 2006.

He moved back to his home state of Florida for a few years before being drawn back to the cheese state.

He was talked into returning to the job of planetarium director that he held while teaching at the university. As the director at the planetarium, Bob is charged with getting people jazzed about the solar system.

"The point is to instill an interest to get people to go out and look at the real sky. And be able to orient themselves and understand what they're seeing," Allen says.

Whether its elementary school kids or college students, the planetarium is an important tool for Bob. He's been using it for the nearly 40 years he's been at the school, first as an astronomy professor. "When I took the position here, it was teaching with the planetarium on the side like a step-child. But it was always there as a true love as well."

And now in retirement. "It's enjoyable a lot of the time. It's not like work unless you have deadlines and new programs. Actually coming and doing a program is very rewarding."

It's programs on the night sky that are most educational for kids and adults alike. "By being there and seeing those public programs they learn the sky and learn the astronomy stuff."

But it's a Friday night program that dates back to the 1970's that lets Bob tap into his love for music.

"I would come down here with friends and put an album or cassette tape in and play some music for friends. I would turn some lightning effects on. They said, 'Why don't you try this and let people come and do it.'"

And thus, Album Encounters was born.

"All of us have our experience with music throughout our life, whether we went to concerts or not. So there's that commonality that people can relate to the music."

With help from tech-savvy student assistants like Riley Karlstrand, Bob sets up a laser light show to a music album. Anything from rock classics...

"I really like the Pink Floyd albums just because Bob gets the most into those," says Karlstrand, a junior at UWL.

To new music like Mumford & Sons or Adele. "With the current releases you're hearing music that you wouldn't hear on the radio necessarily. Maybe one song, but not the whole album," says Allen.

No matter the artist, there are people who come nearly every week.

"Those people are my favorite because they come in and tell us how it was their favorite show week in and week out," Karlstrand laughs.

Whether it's those regulars, or newbies who show up, the hope is that the rock stars people hear in the planetarium can help people gain an added appreciation for the stars up in the sky.

Album Encounters are presented at 8pm on Fridays when classes are in session. You can go to the planetarium's website for more information.