Students at Greenback School recently got a little closer to the stars.

Greenback was one of 10 rural schools selected by the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network to host a portable planetarium owned by former NASA employee Billy Hix.

Hix spoke with third- through fifth-graders Nov. 6, giving a 40-minute presentation that spanned the moon, sun and stars.

“We start out with, ‘You see dots in the sky. I see stories’,” Hix said. “That’s the difference between studying something and not studying something.”

Hix on average visits 100-120 schools annually, mostly near his residence of Shelbyville.

“My overarching goal is that I don’t want kids to be astronomers, I just want them to be excited about learning because it is really cool — and being science-literate,” he said. “This next generation is going to face some really big problems. Whether you believe in climate change or not, the climate’s changing and, man, they’re going to have to deal with it and it’s going to be ugly. It’s going to take smart people making smart decisions. I want to show kids how to cool it is to be smart, too.”

He wants students to experience space in a planetarium, which didn’t happen for him until college. He grew up in “conservative” Flat Creek, and his fifth-grade teacher wouldn’t allow students to look at science books because she felt they were “bad for the students.”

“You wouldn’t be a Christian if you studied science,” Hix said. “I can remember stealing a science book because I as a child got to witness us go to the moon and I was so excited. I wanted to work for NASA and stuff and the worst sin that anybody could commit from my teacher’s standpoint was to go to college because you’d become a liberal.”

Tonya Cope, Greenback School assistant principal, has been trying to arrange a visit for years after first meeting Hix during professional development training.

“He had told me about this project after he had retired and he started working on this and I just asked him if he could put our name into consideration like every year,” Cope said with a laugh. “So he did, and we went through the same screening process that every school has to go through.”

Cope said Hix’s presentation tied to Tennessee state standards for the third- and fifth-grade study of astronomy.

“STEM has become more into focus in education lately and pushing kids more into careers giving them a vision for engineering and science and math, technology careers,” Cope said. “The earlier you can start that interest in students I think the better, and being a more rural school we don’t have as much access without busing and finances to programs like planetariums.

“This kind of brings that learning right here to our students,” she added. “It’ll give them an actual planetarium experience and hopefully spur their love of science.”

Mike Casteel, Greenback School principal, sees value in providing such experiences.

“I think the biggest thing that we’re looking for is just offering some unique opportunities for our kids to see some things that they don’t normally see and even us adults don’t normally see in the setting,” he said. “Just making sure that our kids have some experience outside of a typical school day that might promote them or excite them about a career down the road.”