Rod Martin is entering a new frontier

June 03, 2011|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Rod Martin, director of the William M. Brish Planetarium in Hagerstown, is retiring after this school year.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

Gazing up into a night sky, it's easy to get swept off into the heavens.

Thousands of stars appear, like diamonds on velvet, with more graduations of intensity than the naked eye can perceive.

Rod Martin was no more than 5 years old when he peered into the universe and became starstruck.

It was the beginning of a hobby that would eventually become a career and a lifelong passion.

For the past 27 years, Martin has been director of the William M. Brish Planetarium in Hagerstown.

He also has been a science teacher with Washington County Public Schools.

But at the end of this school year, Martin will be retiring.

He's looking forward to biking, golfing and traveling. And he might take a class or two just for fun.

But he won't be hanging up his telescope.

"I plan on using it more," he said.

Discovering the galaxy

Martin, 60, was born in Hagerstown and moved to St. Thomas, Pa., when he was 3 years old.

Shortly afterward, he had his first encounter with astronomy.

"I was probably 4 or 5 when my parents woke me up in the middle of the night — which was probably 9 or 10 p.m. — to see a brilliant aurora display," he recalled. "I'll never forget the colors and the sight."

And as the space program took off in the late 1950s, he said, "we used to look for satellites crossing the sky, specifically Echo. I began learning about the planets and really enjoyed looking at meteor showers."

Following graduation from James Buchanan High School, Martin headed off to Shippensburg University (then Shippensburg State College), majoring in elementary education.

He also took every astronomy class that was offered.

Martin said he began teaching in March of 1972 at Fountain Rock Elementary School and, in 1975, earned his master's degree in science for elementary teachers from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Several years later, he became a science teacher at Smithsburg Middle School, where the curriculum included astronomy. He also started an astronomy club.

Stars even on a cloudy day

Martin said he was a frequent visitor to the public programs offered by the William M. Brish Planetarium, when J. Allen Martin (no relation) was its director.

The planetarium is under the jurisdiction of Washington County Public Schools.

"When Allen retired in 1984, I decided to apply and was fortunate enough to be appointed to the position," Martin said.

As director, Martin said his job has included "planning, developing, purchasing and assembling timely lessons to match the Washington County Public Schools and state curricula for astronomy education.

"I have planetarium lessons for every elementary grade level," he said.

Martin said the majority of visitors to the planetarium are students, who visit regularly as part of their science curriculum.

But a major part of his job, Martin said, is to present public programs.

"This is the fun part of the job because this is the opportunity for the public to visit and learn about astronomy.  I see people from scouts to senior citizens all interested in the topics being presented," he said.

Public programs, he noted, are usually purchased from other planetariums which have production budgets.

Martin said the planetarium was renovated in 1999 and, at that time, it was estimated that more than a quarter million people had passed through the doors and utilized the educational opportunities.

Look to the stars

Why are so many individuals fascinated with astronomy?

"I think it's because there are so many new discoveries and new information being discovered," Martin said. "It's not just looking at constellations or identifying stars It's learning about our place in space and our role in the universe.

Every day, it seems, there are new extrasolar planets discovered, distant galaxies observed, evidence uncovered for dark matter or dark energy, and on and on."

By understanding the dynamics of stellar evolution and the formation of solar systems, he said, "we gain an understanding of where we fit in."

"Astronomy has taught me that knowledge never ends, but that each discovery or new bit of information simply opens new questions to answer," he said. "We will never know it all."

And it doesn't matter the level of your astronomy knowledge, he said. There's always something new and fascinating to learn —  from beginners and novices to the more sophisticated learner.

As a teacher and planetarium director, Martin said he hopes he has influenced young people in developing an interest in astronomy.

"I've had high school interns in the past and one received a degree in astronomy from the University of Virginia and another graduated from Harvard in astronomy and then attended Cambridge University in England," he said.

"One of my main goals is simple," Martin said. "When people leave the planetarium, I want them to look up. If they look up to the sky and recognize a bright star or planet or impress friends with their newfound knowledge, I am happy. If the visitors learn something that helps them understand a newspaper article or news brief about something in astronomy, I am happy.  I want people to be aware and appreciate the universe and astronomy."

More than a career

In 1985, Martin, along with John Wilcox and the late Ron Sanders, co-founded the Tristate Astronomers club, with a goal of increasing astronomy literacy.

"The club is very active in the community," Martin said. "The highlight is the annual Antietam Battlefield Star Party held annually in April. A similar event is held in October."

Other events include telescope workshops, assistance at science nights in the local schools; observing special astronomy events, like eclipses, comets or planetary conjunctions; and supporting Discovery Station.

Membership is open to the public, he said, with reasonable dues. Members don't have to be an experienced astronomer to join. For more information, go to

As he approaches retirement, after more than 39 years with WCPS, Martin reflected on his fondest memories of teaching.

"There are so many," he said.  "There is the excitement of young students when they first see the stars on the dome.  There is the understanding of a concept by a public visitor after attending a program.  And I've been privileged to have met so many interesting people."

Martin said a replacement for his planetarium position has not yet been named.

"But the planetarium resource teacher position is the best job in WCPS," he said.

Martin said he and his family lived in Smithsburg until seven years ago, when they moved to Chambersburg, Pa.

For the past 20 years, he has been an adjunct astronomy instructor at Hagerstown Community College, where, in 2010 he was named "Outstanding Adjunct in Science."  Martin said he plans to continue teaching at the college.

He is looking forward to spending time with his family, he said.  His wife retired seven years ago as a media specialist from WCPS after 30 years. His daughter, Sara, is a child therapist in Salisbury, Md., and his son, Justin, is an aerospace engineer in Huntsville, Ala.

Martin also plans on spending more time with the astronomy club.

"I can now be a member instead of a facilitator," he said.  "I'm looking forward to that."

Although he'll be retired, if he's ever needed, Martin said he'd be happy to help out at the planetarium.

"After all, it was my life for 27 years and astronomy is still my passion."

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