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More than four decades after helping launch the Maryland Science Center, educator Jim O'Leary retires

More than four decades after helping launch the Maryland Science Center, educator Jim O'Leary retires
Jim O'Leary, senior scientist at the Maryland Science Center, is retiring after 44 years. He is standing in the science center's rooftop observatory with the 1927 Clark telescope. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Jim O’Leary’s fingerprints are everywhere in the Maryland Science Center.

When the Inner Harbor attraction opened in 1976, its slide-projector planetarium shows were his creation. When it began playing IMAX movies, he oversaw the theater and, eventually, helped produce original films that played there and in similar facilities around the world. For years, he guided visitors through eclipses, planetary transits across the sun and otherwise unremarkable summer nights from the center’s rooftop observatory.

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As the center’s senior scientist, he has spent the past several years sharing the demonstrations and lessons he has crafted along the way to teachers across Maryland and the Mid-Atlantic. That work is winding down as the NASA grant that funded it nears expiration — and as O’Leary’s 44-year career at the science center concludes, too.

He retired Friday, the last of the science center’s founding team.

Colleagues and fellow educators say that doesn’t mean Marylanders won’t keep learning from him. Teachers still will use lessons O’Leary developed using toilet paper or Play-Doh to illustrate concepts like the size of the solar system, or of the moon relative to Earth. And science center visitors will keep reading his words on exhibits such as one explaining the complexities of how astronomers search for life beyond this planet.

“Jim could explain that to a third grader. He could explain that to a senior citizen,” said Van Reiner, who led the science center as CEO from 2003 until 2017. “And they’d both walk away going, ‘Wow.'”

O’Leary, 67, joined the science center in December 1975, before it had even opened. When it became the Inner Harbor’s first public attraction six months later, he remembers, the brick waterfront promenade didn’t reach its doors. The entrance was on the Light Street side.

Then just 24 years old, he had a few years of experience at planetariums near his hometown in Fitchburg, Mass.; at the Rochester Museum and Science Center in New York, where he interned; and at the Rock Creek Nature Center in Washington and Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, where he got his first jobs.

He thought he’d spend a year or two in Baltimore, with plans to go to medical school one day. But he was drawn in by the spirit of curiosity being fostered at the new museum (and by the native Baltimorean who would become his wife).

He remembers being challenged to come up with new and exciting experiences for visitors in the science center’s Davis Planetarium, his boss saying, “Impress me with something on this dome.”

“The place was new and young, and I got an opportunity to do things I wouldn’t have been able to do at the Franklin Institute,” O’Leary said.

He developed planetarium shows using three dozen slide projectors and recording narrations onto cassette tapes. In those days, it involved contacting observatories around the world, sometimes by mail, to gather images and information.

The science center then sold them in kits to planetariums as far away as Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Kuwait. They introduced museum-goers around the world to concepts like infinity, the depths of the galaxy or the ways in which Earth could one day be destroyed.

Over the years, though, technology changed the science center. The planetarium switched over to digital systems, and an IMAX theater opened, offering visitors an even more dramatic view on a five-story screen.

Looking for other ways to present visitors with a dynamic experience, O’Leary helped develop the science center’s SpaceLink exhibit, providing not just static information about the solar system but live and interactive connections to its exploration. The exhibit has featured talks with astronauts in person and from the International Space Station — including three Maryland natives who remember being inspired by visits to the science center when they were children.

O’Leary recalled children’s faces lighting up when they realized they, too, could go on to become space explorers.

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Mark Potter, the science center’s current CEO, credited O’Leary with helping to craft the institution’s interactive spirit. As museums like the science center were popping up around the country in the 1970s and 1980s, “Jim was just at the forefront of that.”

In the late 1990s, he moved into film production. He teamed with filmmakers from the BBC in the United Kingdom to produce “The Human Body,” adapting a television miniseries to the massive IMAX screen. He spent two weeks traveling dirt roads of Mongolia with paleontologists to develop “Dinosaurs Alive.”

In the 2010s, he helped produce “Flight of the Butterflies,” about the migrating monarchs, and “Star-Spangled Banner: Anthem of Liberty,” which commemorated the bicentennial of the War of 1812.

At the same time, he was always the face of the science center to the community. He organized its annual awards naming outstanding young scientists and engineers, and presented a scholarship to a city high school student each year. He spoke with reporters about the best ways to spot meteors or to observe a lunar eclipse.

It was those interactions with the public, Reiner said, that led to the final chapter of O’Leary’s career at the science center. Watching O'Leary easily explain even the most confusing celestial event, Reiner said he realized all that knowledge could be put to even better use. Through a grant from NASA, the science center tasked him with developing seminars to train teachers in big scientific concepts and show them how to demonstrate them for children of any age.

Through the initiative, O’Leary has trained more than 1,100 teachers across the Mid-Atlantic. Using a sheet of toilet paper to represent the distance between Earth and the sun, he showed them just how many of the paper squares it would take to span the solar system.

Educators said he teaches in an accessible and engaging way, allowing them to help more students understand the same ideas.

“He’s very methodical in how he presents it,” said Linda Sherman, education coordinator at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on the Virginia portion of the Delmarva peninsula. “He has a nice way of questioning teachers to get them to really think about what they’re learning.”

Christopher Kopco, planetarium/STEM resource teacher in Washington County public schools, said O’Leary’s methods have been ingrained into much of the county’s curriculum for first-, fifth- and eighth-graders.

The science center has no new senior scientist to step into O’Leary’s shoes, at least not immediately. Other science center staff have taken on planetarium and IMAX programming, and for now, the teacher training seminars will end.

O’Leary, a Perry Hall resident, said he plans to continue speaking and teaching occasionally at schools and senior centers. He will spend the next few months finishing a report on the NASA teaching grant, though his official time at the science center has ended.

And his presence won’t entirely disappear from its exhibits. Every evening, a recording plays to inform visitors that closing time is approaching. It’s spoken in the same voice that could long be heard explaining space exploration or solar flares, and that one teacher called melodic and engaging — O’Leary’s.

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