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IU Northwest astronomy courses get star treatment

Merrillville Community Planetarium provides perfect classroom, instructor

Wednesday May 24, 2017

Few subjects captivate minds -- young and old -- quite like astronomy.

Short of boarding a space shuttle, a planetarium offers the best possible environment to satisfy one’s celestial curiosity, and better still, earn credits to fulfill a science requirement at Indiana University Northwest.

Each Saturday, Adjunct Professor Gregg Williams’ astronomy students file into the Merrillville Community Planetarium, where Williams also happens to be the director, and has been for the past 35 years.

While chatting with Williams, it is immediately clear that he was born to be a teacher. In fact, he admits that he has been laser-focused on his career goal ever since he saw a man walk on the moon when he was nine.

Born from a family of teachers, Williams received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Ball State University (BSU), the only public university in the state with a planetarium on campus.

“I actually went to college with the intention of being a planetarium director,” he said.

As luck would have it, he spotted an opening in Merrillville during his senior year at BSU. He became the Merrillville Community Planetarium’s third director – his first post-college job, and one he likely won’t leave until he retires.

The planetarium, housed inside Clifford Pierce Middle School in Merrillville, greets visitors with a model space shuttle suspended from the ceiling and murals of stars and planets adorning the walls. When exiting the 64-seat planetarium, visitors even exit into a mini gift shop.

Having created at least half of the 50-plus shows that the planetarium shows to the entire region’s K-12 audiences, Williams seems an obvious choice for college-level instruction as well.

He recalls his foray into teaching college astronomy.

“In 2000, I got a call from Governor’s State University (GSU),” Williams said. “They asked if I had a master’s degree and said they needed a summer astronomy instructor. That was a start of a 10-year collaboration.”

However, Williams admitted that teaching astronomy from a classroom felt like “teaching with one hand tied behind my back.”

Shortly after he stopped teaching for GSU, in 2015, Williams’ phone rang with an offer from IU Northwest. Williams immediately suggested that the courses take place not on campus, but at his planetarium, just minutes down the road from the campus.

Gregg Williams

IU Northwest photo by Erika Rose

Gregg Williams, adjunct faculty member, teaches astronomy courses for IU Northwest. Students attend class at the Merrillville Community Planetarium, located inside Clifford Pierce Middle School in Merrillville. Williams has served as the director there for the past 35 years.

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