New ELCO planetarium is already a science star in middle school curriculum (2024)

New ELCO planetarium is already a science star in middle school curriculum (1)

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The planetarium at ELCO Middle School, which sat unused for years before being brought back into action late in 2023, is quickly becoming a centerpiece of the school’s science curriculum — and, faculty members say, it has the potential for so much more.

“It has been an amazing feature for our students that I have been using quite a bit,” Jamie Cascarino, a sixth-grade science teacher in the district, told LebTown.

“The planetarium has been used quite frequently during the units studying the Earth, solar system, celestial bodies, and other aspects within the universe,” Cascarino said. “It has been used weekly during those units and as we continue to grow in learning the features and possibilities with the programming, I can see that timeframe and utilization growing.”

ELCO Middle School principal Jonathan Treese said the planetarium, after extensive improvements, was brought back into service earlier this school year.

“It’s state of the art and everything is installed. It’s a hardwired system that operates as its own computer. It has all its capabilities. Now we’re trying to get people up to speed, expanding their capabilities,” Treese said. “We had training for staff in October, and it was operational that same month.”

The system was installed by SSIA Technologies, which specializes in planetariums and immersive venues.

The facility is versatile, he said, and teachers can use the internet to display multiple objects on the dome at once. That means a teacher could show a clip of something, he said, then enhance the projection and connect it to other pieces of content.

“Right now, the bulk of the science team is using it for astronomy,” he said. “There is a full-dome show that can show a projection of all the galaxies, all the planets, and zoom in on the planets – it’s almost like traveling through space in a projection, like an interactive movie.

“It’s a unique level of engagement, where even students that may not have much interest in science or stars … this brings excitement to all of them. That’s a powerful thing.”

New ELCO planetarium is already a science star in middle school curriculum (2)

Renovations and upgrades to the planetarium cost over $400,000. District superintendent Julia Vicente told LebTown the cost of renovations has been paid by the district, but the ELCO Education Foundation has committed to raising funds to help offset the expense. Last August, the planetarium was the beneficiary of a fundraiser at the foundation’s annual gala. Called “A Night Under the Stars,” the fundraiser brought in $105,000 toward the project.

The foundation had committed to raising about $200,000 toward the cost of renovations, according to prior reports and the foundation’s website notes that donations are still welcome from individuals and corporate sponsors.

Read More: ELCO prepares to shine a light on the heavens with refurbished planetarium

The district administration has limited information about the planetarium’s history. Vicente said last year she’s not sure when it was built, or why, or when exactly the district stopped using the planetarium and converted the space into a round, domed classroom.

However, she said she has wanted for years to bring it back into regular use.

“When I came to the district and found out about it, I got excited and said we had to bring it back,” Vicente told LebTown in 2023. “The journey to bring the planetarium back started six years ago, my first year with the district.” The project was delayed because of the pandemic in 2020, then got back on track.

Instead of a star projector, which was the centerpiece of planetariums back in the day, the new facility uses a computer-based, two-projector system that provides educators with a lot more flexibility.

“Personally, I have used the planetarium in great detail for instruction on celestial bodies (planets, moons, stars, etc.) and functions and features regarding instructional standards under Earth and Space Science,” Cascarino said in an email. “The study of the night sky, constellations, stars, galaxies, our own galaxy (The Milky Way) have all been highlighted over the past few months.”

New ELCO planetarium is already a science star in middle school curriculum (3)

Recently, for instance, Cascarino said the planetarium was used for a study of the planet Jupiter, its attributes and benefits to the solar system, and the ways its presence protects the Earth.

“Honestly, we are only at the beginning of the possibilities for the planetarium. Earth and Space Sciences are only the beginning,” the science teacher explained. “The programming and software allows for us to dive into other sciences and instruction. For example, there are software programs and features for us to dive into Life Sciences. Using the planetarium we would have the ability to have students be inside an animal or plant cell! There are full dome shows that are basically like having our own IMAX theatre, right here in our school! This truly is a unique and impressive aspect that enhances student learning.”

Students, Cascarino said, are excited to have this unusual facility in their school.

“The way the planetarium features brings the universe to life is very impressive,” he said. “Students are part of a virtual world now and having the opportunity to have this technology at our fingertips lends itself to fit right into current trends of learning for our students.”

Down the road, Cascarino said he expects use of the planetarium will be expanded to include opportunities for elementary and high school students.

“This is something in the conversation stage as the training in use of the software for the planetarium is quite intense and does involve coding,” he said.

School officials are also discussing “how can this impact our community at large.” It’s still in the early stages of conversation, he said, but it’s “definitely in the radar.”

New ELCO planetarium is already a science star in middle school curriculum (4)

Cascarino said he recently had a chance to demonstrate the planetarium’s new technology to Greg Phillips, who was Cascarino’s science teacher years ago. “This brought the old technology and new technology together as we were able to talk about how the planetarium was used and what we are looking forward to do in the future!” Cascarino said. “I also had a great opportunity to demonstrate its features to upper administration and key stakeholders and hope that this can continue to grow for our school, students, and community.”

Treese agreed that the planetarium will eventually be a tool for students K-12 and, potentially for community groups as well.

“It’s a very big point of pride for our school and our alumni,” he said. “Using it for other means, other than just curricular, is something we’re very interested in.”

Just having it there improves school morale, he added.

“Kids have a buzz about them in the hallways,” Treese said. “When kids are spending a chunk of time in the planetarium, the excitement is staggering. The level of engagement it brings – we can’t match that in the classroom. It really brings their education to life.

“I think it’s going to be a catalyst. We have to find more ways to use this tool, because it brings so much excitement to the students. It makes them want to learn more.”

Cascarino is also enthusiastic about the ways in which the planetarium can improve the school curriculum.

“Any time we can bring the curriculum to life we are making it better,” he said. “To bring the universe to our students, not just seeing pictures, reading about it, or looking it up on devices, has been one of the greatest excitements for me as a teacher. Even more so, I experienced the planetarium as a former student here at the ELCO MS back in the late 1980s and I have very impressive and fond memories of it back then. And that was new technology back then. My hope is that my memories and experiences that I gained as a student is something I can come close to implementing for students now as their teacher.

New ELCO planetarium is already a science star in middle school curriculum (5)

Treese is also excited about the possibilities.

“The capability of the planetarium is the amazing thing,” he said. “It is fully programmable. You can program the dome to move, to do what you want. It’s not just a science tool.

“Our science team is in there pretty often. Where we go from here, you’ll see the planetarium being used cross-curricularly. Students can use it in multiple subjects.”

Treese said he has talked informally with teachers about possible uses of the planetarium in other fields of study, but “we have no full-scale plan at this moment.”

“There is no limit to what you can create and project in the dome. That has other disciplines very excited,” he said. “They want to start finding ways to engage students in the same way. We’re very eager to see where it goes.”

Teachers still getting used to the various ways they can engage their students with enhanced content, he added, and “that will only continue to increase as we get more teachers comfortable with it. … It’s an awesome tool that’s not just about showing stars.”

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New ELCO planetarium is already a science star in middle school curriculum (6)

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