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From student to leader: Nurturing science enthusiasm at Morehead 

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By CHRISTOPHER KATELLA

CHAPEL HILL, NC (July 9, 2024)—In the spring of 2015, UNC-Chapel Hill mathematics student Solomon Starling was, like many undergraduates, looking for a job for the summer. One day, an email about summer opportunities at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center popped up in his inbox. Thinking a camp counselor job could be fun, he applied. Now, nine years later and a full-time staff member at Morehead, Starling is taking the next step in a rewarding career in science education.

An enriching pathway 

Joining as a student employee that summer of 2015, Starling worked with Morehead’s on-site programs team, including assisting with camps, afterschool activities, and the Science Stage. “I began to see the importance of a place like Morehead, where kids can come and engage with science, be comfortable failing experiments, make friendships, and have fun,” he recalled. One of the many lessons learned during those years stands out from others: the power of play and creating spaces where kids can be curious but also allowed to be themselves. “I have so many wonderful memories of playing games with kids during camp or after school,” said Starling. “It’s not just about learning science; it’s about developing a sense of creativity and community.”

After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill, Starling participated in a one-year internship program at Morehead for those interested in working in a museum setting. Near the end of that internship, an opportunity presented itself when one of his mentors, Mickey Jo Sorrell, decided to retire, leaving an opening on the programs team. Starling applied for the position of Science Education Specialist and was hired. “Joining the team permanently let me dedicate much more time to learning how to lead and design programs for much broader audiences rather than just kids,” he explained.

Solomon Starling poses with Ramses, the UNC-Chapel Hill mascot
Solomon Starling with Ramses, the UNC-Chapel Hill mascot (submitted photo)

In the Science Education Specialist role, Starling undertook a variety of responsibilities supporting Morehead’s programs. From taking Morehead’s mobile planetarium across the state to coordinating Summer Science Camps and Scouts Astronomy Workshops, the range of activities was extensive. “I’ve also hosted adult birthday parties, exploded ping pong balls across McCorkle Place, smashed pumpkins frozen in liquid nitrogen, taken telescopes to the Outer Banks to see the Milky Way, and – perhaps my favorite – facilitated a few marriage proposals under the stars in the planetarium,” he recounted.

A child and adult sit at a table in the Launch Lab. On the table, there is glue, paper, and a hot glue gun.
Guests in the Morehead Launch Lab

New opportunities 

Starling’s new role as Interpretive Programs Lead Coordinator brings fresh challenges and opportunities, including creating programming for Morehead’s Science LIVE! demonstration stage and its Launch Lab. The excitement of returning to familiar spaces, such as the Science Stage, and experiencing the novelty of the Launch Lab brings a sense of anticipation and purpose as Starling settles into the new role. “I’m really looking forward to bringing our hands-on learning approach from summer camp to all the visitors who come to Morehead,” he said.

As UNC undergraduate students staff the Science Stage and Launch Lab, it’s also an opportunity for Starling to guide those who were once in his shoes. “As a former Morehead student employee, Solomon has experienced what it was like to work here as a student,” said Whit McMillan, School + Interpretive Programs Manager at Morehead. “Now that he will lead a team of student educators, his perspective will help us as we work to make each student’s time here a fun and meaningful experience.”

Opened in the fall of 2020, along with the rest of the renovated Morehead building, the Launch Lab is Morehead’s “tinkerspace,” where visitors and program participants can learn through unique hands-on activities. “The goal of the Launch Lab is to provide a space where visitors can actively participate in the learning process,” remarked Starling. “To try, to fail, to create, to iterate, and – of course – to have fun!” The Launch Lab exemplifies Morehead’s commitment to experiential learning, allowing visitors to engage with creative and scientific processes in a low-stakes environment. The activities are designed to spark curiosity and encourage lifelong learning, from building light pollution shields to solving creative puzzles.

“More than anything, I want people—kids and adults alike—to leave the Launch Lab having their creativity kindled, to be curious about the world around them, and to be eager to continue a life full of learning,” he emphasized.

Reflecting on the journey…so far 

For Starling, Morehead is not just a workplace but a community where personal and professional growth is nurtured. The support and camaraderie among colleagues have been instrumental in his journey since he was a student employee. “One of the many reasons I love working at Morehead and have stuck around for so long is the people I work with. I’ve made some of my best friends here and learned so much from my colleagues and mentors,” he shared. Mentors like Wayne Capps, who taught the importance of making people feel genuinely welcome, have left a lasting impact.

The mission of Morehead, to serve the entire state of North Carolina, also resonates deeply with Starling. “Accessibility is a foremost priority in my own work, and Morehead’s mission aligns with that. We understand that it’s not possible for everyone to visit our planetarium in Chapel Hill, but we can come to you!” he said.

“I hope all of our visitors will feel our mission of Science for All in everything we do.”

Solomon Starling wears a green shirt and smiles.
Solomon Starling (submitted photo)