East Lyme shows off planetarium renovations
East Lyme ― Bowls filled with snack-sized Milky Way chocolate bars and Starburst candies greeted members of the East Lyme Senior Center as they filed into the newly revived high school planetarium Thursday for a special 4 p.m. showing of “Oasis in Space.”
The early bird viewing opportunity was part of the inaugural summer series of STARS to STEM, a nonprofit organization created in 2019 to make science exciting for students of all ages by resurrecting the defunct dome constructed right around the time man first stepped on the moon.
Seated in a combination of school, office and bean bag chairs assembled beneath the dome, the group was introduced to the Digistar Lite console purchased for $38,000 with money raised through the years-long effort led by East Lyme teacher Diane Swan.
Some of those in the audience, like senior center Program Coordinator Candy Heikkinen, remembered being a student at the high school when the room consisted of a hulking, metal projector and reclining seats beneath the same 25-foot dome.
The planetarium was installed just a few years after the country was taken over by celestial fervor with the first moon landing in 1969. Residents at the time decided they'd rather have a planetarium than a pool at their new high school. Science teacher Donald Bloom turned it into a reality.
Now, Swan is hopeful the success of the summer series will lead to a formal agreement with the Board of Education to share the space. She has been working to turn downtime into showtime by seeking approval for STARS to STEM to use the space on nights, weekends, and maybe on school days when the room is not being used as a classroom.
She said an official partnership could also make it easier to secure grant funding for expenses like an array of 48 reclining seats that can be easily stacked and stored when the room is being used as a classroom. Her current estimates put the cost for the flexible seating at up to $10,000.
On Thursday, Planetarium Director Kyra Elliott guided the group through the solar system and the more familiar night sky using an XBox controller to manipulate powerful Digistar 7 software.
“It is the same software that you can find if you go to Liberty Science Center in New Jersey, which is the biggest planetarium on this side of the world,” she told the audience. “It’s also found in countless large theaters worldwide. This is the real deal.”
Elliott got her start volunteering at the Mystic Seaport planetarium before going on to graduate from Vassar College in New York with an astronomy degree and coursework in computer animation. A transformation to digital projection set the stage for jobs at the Children’s Museum in West Hartford and the Louisiana Art and Science Museum where she worked in roles ranging from running planetarium shows to producing her own full-dome animations.
Austin and Miabeth O’Connor after the show said the planetarium show was among the wide-ranging opportunities presented by the senior center so they can learn about different topics.
“I thought it was awesome,” Austin O’Connor said. “That lady presenting the show, her information and knowledge is mind boggling.”
Miabeth O’Connor put it this way: “He loves stars.”
Partnerships to expand planetarium use
Swan began her campaign to bring back the planetarium in 2017 when she found out the school district was planning to turn the space into a special education classroom. She convinced the East Lyme Board of Education to keep the dome intact and put off any permanent changes until she could raise enough funds to bring it back as a planetarium.
Swan said STARS to STEM has brought in about $75,000 in donations since it was incorporated as a nonprofit.
She cited several unsuccessful attempts recently to secure grants from area foundations for improvements like the flexible seating and more software. She said an official partnership with the school board and a set schedule would allow for the kind of outreach to youth across the region that the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut likes to see.
“What we’ve tried to do is show the space could be used as flex space,” she said.
That could mean the room is used for planetarium shows on nights and weekends, as well as an agreed upon number of days a week during the school day.
This approach has evolved from an initial STARS to STEM proposal that would have charged school districts, including East Lyme, a fee to use the planetarium.
School board Chairman Eric Bauman on Thursday said members are excited about the progress Swan has made raising money and developing the program that was showcased for the first time this summer.
“We definitely want to partner with Diane. We just have to sort through the logistics for how it will all work.”
He expressed openness to the type of framework described by Swan but said there’s a lot for the school board to get caught up on now that STARS to STEM is closing out the series on Friday.
Swan on Thursday estimated close to 300 people came through the doors over six weeks for three showings every Thursday and Friday.
For Elliott, who has a master’s degree in STEM & technology education from Central Connecticut State University, the planetarium’s location is ideal for allowing students to make their own shows to view under the dome.
“Because it’s in a school, there’s the potential for students to actually take an active role in operation and content development,” she said. “As a teacher, that’s something I feel very strongly about seeing happen here potentially in the future.”
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