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Story - Education

Mar 10, 2010 11:51 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Southampton High School seeks upgrades for planetarium, envisions opening to public

Mar 10, 2010 11:51 AM

On the grand scale of the universe, the Southampton High School planetarium, dating from the early 1970s, is brand new. Compared to the stars and planets it projects, the space-age facility—the only one of its kind in an East End school—is a cosmic infant.

Yet, the Shinnecock Celestial Learning Center, as the planetarium is formally known, has become outmoded in terms of earthly school standards, and its use has been limited mostly to a small audience of high school astronomy students.

A group of educators and staff is currently exploring ways to modernize the planetarium— it was last upgraded in the late 1980s—broaden its scope and open it up to public use. Such a renovation project may cost anywhere from $200,000 to $2 million, but Southampton is looking to use money from an existing capital reserve fund to pay for it. If the district’s School Board ultimately approves plans for the planetarium’s modernization, voters could consider a face-lift for the facility on the school ballot as soon as this May.

Adam Fine, principal of the high school, Randall Dobler, director of facilities, operations and school safety, and Allen Seltzer, planetarium director and science teacher—with the enthusiasm of newly minted astronauts launching into orbit for the first time—would like to have a formal plan ready to present to the School Board this spring, but consider the end of the school year a more realistic finish date. The three have held periodic meetings with the facilities committee, teachers, administrators, Shinnecock Indian Nation representatives and School Board to help formulate their plans.

Mr. Fine and his coworkers envision the planetarium as a nighttime community attraction that may be used to host laser shows, birthday parties, lecture series and other activities. The planetarium is currently used by approximately 20 to 30 students in two sections of astronomy that meet five days per week.

Certain upgrades could also allow for interdisciplinary uses in the school. Rather than projecting only celestial bodies on the dome for astronomy, more recent technology could, for example, project the likeness of the ocean floor for use by marine science classes. Computer graphics students could apply their skills by utilizing lasers, for which the current planetarium lacks the capability.

“There are unlimited educational and instructional possibilities in engaging our community,” explained Mr. Fine. “I’m so excited, I’m like a kid in a candy store.”

In the coming months, a few manufacturers will offer demonstrations of equipment the district might ultimately select to replace the antiquated Spitz 512 planetary projector currently in use. Konica Minolta Holdings, Inc. has already provided a demonstration of its Media Globe to the school and will return with its Super Media Globe on May 18. Carl Zeiss, Inc. will display its equipment on March 16.

A bulbous, star-studded, spinning apparatus, the Spitz 512 can project approximately 1,600 stars, a fraction of the 2,000 to 9,000 that may be viewed with the naked eye under ideal conditions or with newer equipment, according to Mr. Seltzer, who also teaches astronomy. The Spitz 512 is also lackluster in its imprecise projection of stars and inability to show such celestial phenomena as meteor showers or the sky as viewed from the Southern Hemisphere. Newer, digital models offer views from alternate locations, such as Mars or the moon.

The planetarium’s 30-foot hemispherical dome reveals its age through visible seams that artificially segment the sky. The brightness of the stars has slightly diminished since the dome was installed. Its underside should be as white or silver as possible to enhance the brightness of the projections, Mr. Seltzer explained.

Upgrades would likely include repairing the dome and the cove lighting embedded in its base. The aging analog slide projections would likely be replaced in favor of full-dome digital projection capability. Adding a sound system could provide intergalactic music, sound effects and other forms of foley art for use in lessons and presentations.

Since some of the 93 seats in the planetarium fall partially outside of the dome, obstructing views, renovations would likely reduce the number of seats. The carpeting would also be replaced.

Plans under discussion also call for replacing a blackboard with a video monitor. “We could have video conferences and link to NASA when they’re flying by a planet,” explained Mr. Seltzer.

A SMART Board—the new blackboard in classrooms today—is also a likely addition.

Board member David Corwith has called the planetarium a “diamond in the rough.”

As Southampton looks to see if an improved planetarium is in the stars, educators hope to make complex scientific subjects more tangible. Mr. Seltzer explained, “We’re trying to bring the stars down to Earth.”

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It would be nice for the planetarium to receive a face lift so it could be used more. I attended Southampton High School and I remember going to the planetarium 2 maybe 3 times in the four years I was there. It’s a shame because Southampton is privileged to have the facility compared to other schools on the east end and its not being used to its full potential.
By WM11976 (12), Water Mill on Mar 11, 10 8:55 AM
The planetarium is such a great asset and is a candidate for a much deserved facelift/upgrade. I had astronomy there with Mr. Seltzer and it was a great experience--I am sure the students and public would significantly benefit from enhancing the planetarium's capabilities and programs. Mr. Seltzer does a wonderful job year in and year out and his passion for the field would certainly be we received in the greater community.
By squatch (2), Brewster on Mar 11, 10 10:32 AM
I agree. Due to divorce, I did not attend SHS, but, the school I went to had a defunct planetarium, which was not used.

I recall how disappointed I was that it didn't work, and would love to see this upgrade happen, so these kids don't know that kind of disappointment. Maybe we could throw in a Foucault pendulum somewhere as well.

Personally, I was absolutely thrilled when Hubble pointed it's lens at "empty sky" for a lengthy exposure, and revealed thousands of galaxies not seen ...more
By Mr. Z (11847), North Sea on Mar 12, 10 12:41 PM
I attended SHS never visited the Planetarium as a student at the high school, but one of the yearly field trips that we went on in Elementary School was to visit the Planetarium. I loved it, I think it would be great if there was an upgrade and the public was allowed access.
By pstevens (406), Wilmington on Mar 12, 10 2:42 PM
By fdny7318 (60), Water Mill on Mar 14, 10 10:15 PM
Yes, upgrade, allow the public to pay admission and put the money back in to the school. Win win all around.
By peoplefirst (787), Southampton on Mar 15, 10 12:26 PM
The planetarium is one of my most memorable experiences at SHS. Its a brilliant idea, go for it. Do they still have the Meade telescope to view the real ones? That was also alot of fun. The more you can inspire our future the better the future will be.
By North Sea Citizen (568), North Sea on Mar 15, 10 3:23 PM
As one of the original students at SHS to experience the planetarium in Mr. Sherwood's astronomy class back in mid 70's, it was certainly a great venue to experience and learn about the stars. It is a long time coming to having the public have an opportunity to learn in the same mannor. The long term opportunity to generate money from the paying public will off-set any initial investment. Go for it!
By macattack59 (3), Pittsford on Mar 18, 10 11:01 AM
The school district made a huge mistake when building the high school. At the time they had a choice between an indoor swimming pool or the planetarium. A swimming pool would have benefited more students and district residents than the planetarium. Now to thro millions more to renovate it while school budgets need to be reduced is not the best idea.
By Walt (292), Southampton on Mar 19, 10 12:00 PM