Traveling planetarium at Bluffton Middle expands students' horizons

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comDecember 20, 2013 

Bluffton Middle School seventh grade advanced science class teacher Lois Lewis, center, gives a presentation on "our place in space," using a light projector to display constellations while inside a portable planetarium at Bluffton Middle School on Dec. 19, 2013. The school was approved to house the planetarium from the South Carolina State Museum after first grade science teacher Glenn Dowell received a fellowship grant.

THEOPHIL SYSLO — Staff photo Buy Photo

It was pitch black, and all the students sat quietly in anticipation.

Suddenly, stars and planets illuminated the sky.

It was not the true night sky, however. Students were looking up at the dome of a portable planetarium that had been set up in the lobby of Bluffton Middle School.

The school housed the large AstroLab planetarium from the S.C. State Museum for a week to help students learn about the universe.

"The AstroLab is here and we are loving it," principal Pat Freda said. "The students are so excited about it, and we can use it for everything."

The planetarium first arrived at the school on Monday after science teacher Glenn Dowell applied for and received a fellowship grant for $500. The school raised an extra $100 to allow the planetarium to remain for a full week, he said.

Dowell got the idea for the planetarium in the first few weeks of classes.

"One of our first questions for students in class is, 'What have you always wanted to know?' and that really piqued their interests," he said. "A lot of the questions they had were around celestial bodies and space, and a lot of those questions have been answered by having this planetarium."

The structure -- about 15 feet tall and 15 feet across -- was first intended for the sciences, but Freda said the school has been able to use it for all subject areas. The lab came with various cylinders to project in the dome, including mythology, weather patterns and the history of how certain cultures used the stars.

Dowell said the school worked to get every student and teacher in the dome while it was on loan.

"This is hands-on and really helping the students be able to learn and engage, no matter what subject," he said. "Instead of just looking at it in a book, learning is definitely becoming more interactive for students."

One of the ways the planetarium is interactive is by allowing the students to set specific locations and find out what constellations and stars they would see. Another lesson taught students how to find the North Star and navigate by using it.

Several seventh-grade students who visited the planetarium for science class said it made them more interested in the subject.

One student, seventh-grader Hailey Breitenstein, said being surrounded by the planets in the lab made her want to pursue a career in space and the stars.

"It really made you feel like you were sitting in the middle of the universe," added seventh-grader Charles Eaton. "It's just really cool for the school to be able to have this and supply us with things like this for learning."

Video: Bluffton Middle School planetarium (1:58)

Bluffton Middle School seventh grade advanced science class teacher Lois Lewis gives a presentation on "our place in space," using a light projector to display constellations while inside a portable planetarium at Bluffton Middle School on Dec. 19, 2013. The school was approved to house the planetarium from the South Carolina State Museum after Bluffton Middle School science teacher Glenn Dowell received a fellowship grant.

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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