East Lyme resident proposes upgrading high school planetarium as 'community resource'

East Lyme — A town resident is spearheading an effort to raise support to upgrade the planetarium at East Lyme High School into a 21st-century state-of-the-art facility and a "community asset," rather than see it turned into classroom space.

Diane Swan, who is also a Niantic Center School teacher and science coordinator, said she remembers being inspired during her visits to the planetarium as a student growing up in East Lyme and she wants to bring the planetarium back online.

Swan is meeting with community groups and exploring avenues, including seeking donations and grants and fundraising, to get the planetarium up and running. She said she does not want the cost of the planetarium to come out of town taxpayers' dollars.

Swan is proposing that the planetarium could not only be used academically by East Lyme students, but also could generate revenue when not being used by the district.

Family and individual memberships, donors, community events, and academic shows for other school districts could be ways to cover maintenance costs and the cost of a potential program coordinator, according to her proposal.

For example, people could set up a night at the planetarium, which has a separate entrance from the school, for a birthday party, or PTA functions or fundraisers could be held there. 

"I really think the potential for truly having a state-of-the-art planetarium is endless," she said. 

Swan has developed a business plan and said the first step is to form a commission of people willing to tackle different aspects of the project, from communications to advertising to developing ideas for how the planetarium should be used.

Andy Pappas, who was instrumental in projects, such as the Niantic Bay Boardwalk, came up with the concept of a "Planetarium Imaginarium," where children could learn not only about astronomy, but also topics, including anatomy, wildlife and journeys to different places, Swan said.

Swan said the planetarium could support and be a "prelude" to East Lyme becoming a regional leader in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) programming. 

History of planetarium

The high school's planetarium was built in the early 1970s, after the community voted to construct it rather than a pool.

East Lyme High School teacher Rose Ann Hardy remembers several jam-packed meetings held at the junior high school to allow public comment, with some people adamantly wanting a pool and others advocating for a planetarium.

Advocates for the planetarium questioned the need for a pool when "we have an ocean in our backyard" or people could join a pool club and swim at hotels. It was also a time when a lot of people were interested in science and the newspapers were full every day with news about the space program and getting a man on the moon, said Hardy, who also serves as a town selectwoman. John Glenn was a national hero, and all the students knew who he was.

Hardy said she took her junior high geography and history classes in the 1970s and 1980s to the planetarium, where the equipment was set so students could look up at the dome and see what the sky looked like as Christopher Columbus navigated in 1492.

The planetarium also influenced some former students in their careers.

"I can trace the roots of my career back to my first astronomy class at the East Lyme High School planetarium with Mr. [Donald] Meyer," Dr. Ingrid Daubar said by email. "It inspired me to learn more about space. Now I'm a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a NASA center in Pasadena, CA, where I work on missions to study Mars and Jupiter."

But East Lyme High School Principal Michael Susi said that between 2010 and 2013 the enrollment in the high school's astronomy course was dropping, and the school couldn't use the planetarium — which was specialized with seating in a semi-circle and a large projector in the center of a room — as a regular classroom. At the same time, the school was having difficulty getting parts for the projector, which was from the early 1970's, and it was expensive to maintain.

The school district made the decision in 2013 to reconfigure the high school planetarium and use different technology to convey content onto the dome, rather than the projector, so it could be used for the astronomy course and as a science classroom. 

With the planetarium room set aside from the other science classrooms and limited space at the high school, the district was planning to turn the classroom into a special education classroom for this academic year. The Board of Education has decided to hold the space and give Swan time for her proposal, said Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Newton. He said school officials will reconnect with Swan for an update, likely in December or so.

A new model

Swan said she envisions the project could become a model for projects in town that people would view as innovative, since it taps resources the town has already paid for and it could generate its own revenue. She said it's also a way to still offer new initiatives for students and promote college or career readiness, at a time when state and federal money may be limited.

"We are in a very unique situation where we already have a planetarium," said Swan. "We’re not asking anyone to build it. We just need the equipment to get it back up and running."

Lucy Schuman, who served as assistant principal at East Lyme High School and principal at Niantic Center School, said she's willing to support the effort in any way she can, especially since it would tie into regional STEAM education.

At a time when there's not only scientific interest in space, but also commercial interest, Schuman said a lot of different career opportunities will spin off from this interest.

Schuman said she sees the planetarium as a way to "capture kids' imaginations" and build a curriculum to get kids excited about space, similar to how a number of students from the area pursue careers in marine science due to the town's proximity to the water.

"You could have some kid sitting in the (planetarium's) seat in kindergarten who may be the first person to set foot on Mars," she said. "It's not outside of the realm of real possibility here. It's exciting."

Swan is in contact with potential vendors. A cost for the project, which would include a projector and new seating, is not yet available. Once the Planetarium Commission is established, she would like to see if some of local businesses and volunteers would pitch in to help with tasks such as repainting the dome or electrical work.

There will be demonstrations of a potential Spitz operating system on the planetarium's dome at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 18. Each show will be approximately 45 minutes. Community members are asked to RSVP to attend either show.

To RSVP or to get involved in the planetarium effort, contact rdlvswan@sbcglobal.net.

k.drelich@theday.com

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