King to help find (hidden) stars of science with Morehead Planetarium

Steven King, chief innovation officer for the Reese Innovation Lab, will lend his virtual reality expertise to a five-year $2.86 million grant project recently awarded to Morehead Planetarium & Science Center by the National Science Foundation.

Morehead Building on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus./ Morehead Planetarium

The Morehead Planetarium project, entitled “Hidden No More: Shedding Light on Science Stories in the Shadows” will illuminate both the scientific concepts of light as well as the diverse scientists behind the field.

Through animated films, virtual reality and other immersive experiences, the program will tell the stories of female scientists as well as scientists of color, overlooked by a historical record that has often skewed Eurocentric and male, said Jay Heinz, director of creative and experiential design at Morehead Planetarium.

Kamāl Al-Dīn Al-Färisī

The program will teach about people like Kamāl Al-Dīn Al-Färisī, a 13th-century Persian scientist and mathematician whose experiments confirmed his hypothesis that refraction and reflection both play roles in creating rainbows.


Lewis Latimer

Additionally, people will learn about formerly enslaved person Lewis Latimer, who aided Alexander Graham Bell, Hiram Maxim and Thomas Edison in transforming communication and lighting technologies in the 1800s. Latimer’s own invention helped make early incandescent light bulbs practical and widely useful.

“We’re a diverse society. Our science is not driven by one type of person but many types of people,” Heinz said. “This is giving a more honest and inclusive view on what science is and who does it.”

The project will also narrate the stories of modern-day scientists such as Mercedes López-Morales, a Spanish-American astrophysicist, whose team searches for Earth-like planets outside our solar system.

King, who also serves an associate professor at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media and comprises part of the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, will advise on the project’s virtual and augmented reality components.

Steven King headshot
Steven King

“I am excited to work with Morehead Science Center to use VR in telling the interesting stories of such accomplished women scientists and scientists of color,” King said. “We will also be engaging the students from the Emerging Technologies class to provide feedback, gameplay and quality assurance for these VR stories.”

The exhibits will be developed in three stages, each exploring a different characteristic of light—color, energy or time. Each theme will invite visitors to explore the science and technology of light through multiple deliveries: short documentary and animated films, virtual reality experiences, interactive “photo booths,” and hands-on, technology-based inquiry activities.

Telling the stories doesn’t just make the historical record more inclusive, but provides inspiration for the future, Heinz said.

According to 2017 figures from Nelson, 3.1% of physicists in the United States are African American, only 2.1% are Hispanic, and only 0.5% are Native American.

Heinz is excited about how the program will inspire girls and young people of color interested in the STEM fields.

“When you see somebody who looks like you doing something, it’s easier to see yourself doing it,” Heinz said.