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    Saturday, March 02, 2024

    STARS to STEM at home in East Lyme planetarium

    The STARS to STEM Planetarium at East Lyme High School, as seen on Thursday, August 17, 2023, has hosted multiple shows throughout the summer. (Peyton McKenzie/Special to The Day/file photo)
    The Milky Way Galaxy can be seen during a show at the STARS to STEM Planetarium at East Lyme High School on Thursday, August 17, 2023. (Peyton McKenzie/Special to The Day/file photo)
    A black hole can be seen at the center of the galaxy during a show at the STARS to STEM Planetarium at East Lyme High School on Thursday, August 17, 2023. (Peyton McKenzie/Special to The Day/file photo)

    East Lyme ― The planetarium at East Lyme High School is the official home of STARS to STEM Inc. now that the Board of Education has entered into an agreement with the group to reserve the space for them for at least five years.

    Diane Swan, STARS to STEM founder and president, said this week that “the possibilities are endless” now that the group’s relationship with the school district has been solidified. She hopes foundations will be more likely to provide grant funding for programs and equipment now that her group has been guaranteed access to the planetarium going forward.

    The nonprofit organization hosted planetarium shows as part of its summer and fall series on evenings and weekends, with a winter series in the planning stages. Included are sensory-friendly shows for neurodivergent children and their families, in partnership with the Miracle League of Southeastern Connecticut.

    The planetarium was installed at the school as part of renovations just a few years after the first moon landing in 1969. It went defunct a decade ago when the room was stripped of its hulking metal projector and theater-style seating. In 2017, Swan convinced the school board to keep the dome intact and put off any permanent changes until she could raise enough funds to bring it back as a planetarium.

    The space is currently used as classroom space during the day, with STARS to STEM coming in during non-school hours.

    Resident Elise Piotrowski told the school board she has attended shows at the planetarium with her 7- and 4-year-old daughters. The 4-year-old suggested Swan add some shorter programs in keeping with the attention span of the preschool and elementary school set.

    “We support it. We love it. We would love to continue to go and see shows,” Piotrowski said.

    The agreement took the form of a letter from Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Newton to Swan promising to “keep the existing planetarium area available for ongoing use by STARS to STEM Inc. for the next five years, with the option to extend it in years beyond.”

    The school board endorsed the move at a meeting this past Monday. Chairman Eric Bauman said the agreement lends permanence to what had previously been a year-to-year understanding that the district would keep the room available as a planetarium.

    “We’re happy to be in a continued partnership with STARS to STEM, hopefully beyond five years,” he said.

    Justin Daubar stood up to talk about the planetarium’s effect on his daughter, Ingrid, who went on to become a planetary scientist. Now a professor at Brown University in Rhode Island, she has worked on NASA planetary missions including InSight, Europa Clipper and Juno.

    After the meeting, Swan identified the Daubar family as the benefactors who agreed to match donations up to $10,000 for a fundraising campaign in 2021. In December of that year, the group purchased the sleek, portable Digistar Lite projector to use in the planetarium and to take on the road.

    STARS to STEM in October ventured to the East Lyme Public Library to provide a planetarium show inside a portable dome on loan from the Niantic Children’s Museum. The event was held in conjunction with a viewing of the partial solar eclipse using telescopes.

    Swan said she is working with the district to make it possible for students from other schools in East Lyme to visit the planetarium on field trips. Ultimately, her goal is to become a regional resource that could accommodate visits from students and community groups in other towns as well.

    Newton, the superintendent, said the district plans to be flexible in working with STARS to STEM to schedule future shows and field trips while maintaining the space as a high school classroom until school ends at 2:10 p.m.

    That means an elementary class from the neighboring Flanders School could use the space from 2:30 p.m. until the end of the elementary school day at 3:30 p.m., according to Newton.

    He said discussions would continue.

    e.regan@theday.com

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