Clayton Schools reviving mobile planetarium use

Photo by Hugh Osteen

Photo by Hugh Osteen

By Curt Yeomans


As Church Street Elementary School science teacher, Asia Ketchmore, got two classes of third-graders to settle down in one of Clayton County Public Schools' portable STARLAB Planetariums on Wednesday afternoon, she called out to the stars to reveal themselves to the youths.

"Constellations? Constellations?" Ketchmore said.

As she spoke, images of constellations, such as Leo the Lion, Sagittarius, Scorpio and Gemini, became brighter as they began to appear on the ceiling of the dome. As they appeared, the images drew "oohs," "ahs," and even a gasp from the students.

"Oh my goodness, look at all of them," Ketchmore said. "Look, there's Taurus the Bull, and look, there's Hercules and he's holding Leo the Lion's head. Oh my, there's a dragon [Draco]."

The school system has owned two STARLAB Planetariums for at least 10 years, but they have spent most of the past five years in storage, said school system Elementary Science Coordinator Vicki Jacobs. She added that they were previously operated by two employees whose jobs solely were to take them from school to school, for science classes and science-theme nights at the schools.

They have been used more frequently this fall, however, because of an effort at the elementary-school level to get more science teachers trained to use them.

The STARLABs are large, igloo-shaped, inflatable silver domes that house mobile planetarium equipment. According to information on the STARLAB company's web site, the domes used by Clayton County Public Schools are 10 1/2 feet tall, with a diameter of 16 feet. Each has room to seat up to 27 people at one time. The domes are inflated using hot air.

Five-minute PowerPoint presentations are shown inside the STARLAB at the beginning of the sessions, to allow the youths enough time for their eyes to adjust to the darkness of the dome's interior, Jacobs said. The presentations are cartoons about the stars and constellations that are narrated by the STARLAB instructor.

In the middle of the inside of the dome is a projector, which uses interchangeable cylinders to display images of the stars and the moon, the constellations, plate tectonics, or tidal flows, onto the ceiling of the dome for the students.

"Each grade level is doing something that can be explained in the STARLAB," Ketchmore said. "The kindergartners are learning about night and day, while the second- and third-graders are learning about the stars and the constellations, and the fourth- and fifth-graders are learning about the ancient Greeks, and plate tectonics."

Ketchmore said STARLAB is popular with students because "they like everything that is a break from the norm."

At Church Street Elementary, where one of the domes will be used again today, it has been set up in the school gym, where it takes up nearly half of the floor space, between the dome itself, and the cases that it, the projector and the cylinders come in. To climb inside of it, students have to crawl through an entry tunnel on their hands and knees.

The use of the STARLABs was scaled back five years ago, when the STARLAB instructor positions were eliminated because of budget cuts, Jacobs said. She said one of those instructors was moved to a teaching position, and continued operating the STARLAB, but on a much more limited basis.

"It was being under-utilized," said Jacobs, who became the elementary science coordinator in January. "We have some really awesome resources in the district ... It just seemed natural that we get more people trained."

A dozen Clayton County elementary school science teachers have been trained on how to operate the STARLABs since the beginning of the fall semester, Jacobs said. Another dozen science teachers are scheduled to be trained in January, she added. She said the goal is to eventually have at least one teacher at each of Clayton County's 38 elementary schools trained on how to use a STARLAB.

The additional number of instructors trained on how to use the STARLABs means the portable planetariums will be used at more schools, Jacobs said. Last week, one of the labs was at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, and this week both were at Brown Elementary School, as well as Church Street. In December, STARLABs are scheduled to be at West Clayton, River's Edge and Huie elementary schools.

"That many schools in such a short period of time would have been impossible before, with just one person," Jacobs said. "It's already taking off, and it's being used more than it had been in a while now that word is getting out about it."

As the constellations slowly moved across the interior of the STARLAB dome at Church Street on Wednesday afternoon, third-grader Elijah Battise, 9, sat with a look of awe on his face. "It was awesome," he said later. "I liked looking at the stars, and seeing how some of them were bigger, and some of them were smaller."

Fellow third-grader, Taylor Dowd, 9, said she enjoyed STARLAB because, "I always liked telescopes, and seeing the stars."

Several students said they enjoyed watching the constellation Leo glide across the ceiling.

"I liked Leo the Lion because ... his name and my name both begin with the letter 'L,' and I was born in the Chinese year of the lion," said third-grader, Laura Malson, 9. "I also thought it was interesting that you get to see the moon and the stars."

Another third-grader, Annie Nguyen, 8, said going inside the STARLAB dome was like getting to see the night sky for real. "It shows you all of the stars," she said. "It's like going outside at night, and looking up into the sky."