Going beyond the dome

Schools utilizing their planetariums, observatories for more than star-gazing


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Pine-Richland High School's planetarium, with a 24-foot dome, seven-screen panoramic projector and sound system, is used not only for astronomy courses, but as part of the navigation curriculum for the school's Air Force Junior ROTC.

Woodland Hills High School does not have a planetarium, but instead a domed observatory. An observatory is a building with a built-in telescope, while a planetarium is a room where images are projected onto the ceiling. Superintendent Alan Johnson said the high school's rooftop observatory has received minimal use for almost two years because of a broken telescope. The school recently received an $8,000 grant to replace the 10-inch refractor telescope, after which he said the school hopes to open the observatory to the community.

North Hills High School used its planetarium for an interactive lesson for Black History Month, studying the folk song "Follow the Drinking Gourd," which many escaped slaves used in reference to the Big Dipper, a star formation that points north.

North Hills chemistry and astronomy teacher Susan Batson said the planetarium helps bring "boring textbook lessons to life," which is why the astronomy club sponsors special programs and presentations for the community in the planetarium throughout the year. Astronomy club members set up gift shops after each program as a fundraiser for the club.

"I love being able to see the different constellations in our planetarium," North Hills junior and astronomy club member Brandon Clem said. "They're very appealing to look at, and knowing the science behind them makes it even better."

At least four schools in the county -- North Hills, Pine-Richland, Gateway Senior High School and Woodland Hills -- have planetariums.

Some, such as Gateway's, are decades old. Others, like Pine-Richland's, are newer.

In Upper St. Clair, Fort Couch Middle School's planetarium was turned into academic space years ago.

While upkeep and equipment are expensive, Martin Ratcliffe, former director of the Buhl Planetarium at Carnegie Science Center, said school planetariums are a worthwhile investment.

Mr. Ratcliffe, director of professional development at Sky-Skan, a company that produces digital planetariums, said they help engage students in science, technology, math and engineering and give them a better understanding of complex information through visuals.

"Astronomy engages everybody because it's such a visual subject," he said. "There are so many spectacular images, so having immediate access to a planetarium at a school just gives a tremendous opportunity and advantage to the students who attend that school."

He said one of the greatest benefits of a planetarium is its ability to create a "completely immersive environment" in which lessons of any subject can be applied, from a trip into the human cell to a journey through the stars of the Ursa Minor constellation. It's this versatility that makes planetariums such a popular feature for students, he said.

Abby Majetich, a senior at North Hills, said she chose to attend North Hills High School specifically for its planetarium. Ever since she was a child, she and her dad would take a telescope and star chart to North Park and point out stars and constellations.

After he died while she was in middle school, Abby continued the tradition and joined North Hills' astronomy club.

"I guess it's kind of a sentimental thing for me," she said. "Orion was our constellation, and pointing out its different parts was something we'd do together. He just loved the stars."

This month's North Hills shows, last week and on Tuesday and Friday, were produced by Latin students. Members will discuss various Roman myths of stars and constellations like Sirius, the Dog Star, and Orion, the Hunter, as well as common astronomy-related words that have Latin roots.

"Zubenelgenubi's Magical Sky" is targeted for younger children and starts at 6:30 p.m. both days. "Latin Mythology in the Planetarium," for older children through adults, follows at 7:15 p.m. Reservations must be made 24 hours in advance by calling 412-318-1000, ext. 3166.


Clarece Polke: cpolke@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1889.

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