Community members visit East Lyme planetarium space

East Lyme — When town resident Kathy Lynch stepped into the planetarium at East Lyme High School, she remembered her own high school years when her teacher pointed out all the constellations projected onto the dome. 

"Going to the room brought back memories of Mr. [Donald] Bloom and the knowledge I received from him," said Lynch, who is the secretary of a group aiming to restart the planetarium at the high school.

She brought along her two nephews to a tour of the facility on Tuesday evening so that they, too, could experience what she did. About 20 people joined members of the Planetarium Imaginarium Committee, now STARS to STEM Inc., in the space, which has a 24-foot dome, that they hope to bring back into a full planetarium.

With it still being light outdoors during the early evening tour, her nephew, Brian, 13, peered through the lens of a telescope stationed outside the planetarium to see a close-up of a leaf moving on a far-away tree.

Board President Diane Swan said she organized the tour so people who didn't realize East Lyme had a planetarium — which was installed at the high school in the 1970s — or who haven't seen it before, could see the space.

In 2013, the school district converted the planetarium into an astronomy and science classroom, in which students could still use technology to project onto the dome, high school Principal Michael Susi has said. The decision came as fewer students took astronomy classes and an out-of-date projector became costly to maintain.

The planetarium group formed in the summer of 2017 after Swan learned that the school district was planning to turn the space into a special education classroom. She proposed upgrading the planetarium room into both an educational space and one for the community at large, with no town taxpayer money. The Board of Education recently agreed at its June meeting to continue to hold the planetarium space until June 30, 2019, to allow the group to keep working on its proposal.

Kyra Seurattan, who is studying to be a technology education teacher after a career in planetarium work and is volunteering with the planetarium effort, and her stepfather, Glenn PenkoffLidbeck, an East Lyme Middle School teacher, showed tour-goers a telescope from the 1970s that recently was donated to the East Lyme Public Library, which then donated it to the group. Seurattan said that while new telescopes have a GPS system, the older versions allow people to use their knowledge to manually set up and align the telescope, which is more of a learning experience.

"Not having a GPS in a place like this is probably better," she said.

Under the right conditions, people can use the telescope to glimpse in the sky such features as Saturn's rings, Jupiter's cloud patterns and four largest moons, and the Andromeda galaxy, she said.

In response to an attendee's question, she said that, with the right equipment, it would be possible to project from the telescope onto the dome.

Karen Urgitis, the group's vice president and treasurer, said the group plans to incorporate many different disciplines into the planetarium and tap into multiple senses, such as by having scents or fans blowing. They would have programs on the ocean, space, the human body and even drill down to the level of an atom, and take people on "trips" to places they might not otherwise get a chance to visit.

Under a business model given to the school board in March, the group says funding sources would include fees from schools, membership fees, sponsorships and donations.

Swan said the group plans to next meet with the Board of Education's Planetarium Ad-hoc Committee in the fall to provide an update.

Information sessions on the initiative are planned for October at the East Lyme Public Library and will be listed in the library's newsletter, Swan said. The session will give an overview of the planetarium and STARS to STEM Inc. and also will include star parties in which people can look through the donated telescope and learn about apps for stargazing. 

More information is available by visiting the Planetarium Imaginarium's Facebook page, bit.ly/ELstars.

k.drelich@theday.com

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