Delaware Public Media

"A world of opportunities": Delaware middle school unveils new planetarium

Oct 12, 2017

McCullough Middle School in New Castle has given its dormant planetarium new life, hoping to immerse students further in a hands-on science education. 

Using an overhead dome to project real-time videos of the Earth’s orbit or zoom in on the bones of the human body, the new planetarium is designed to give students an extra push in science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) education. 

The school demonstrated how the planetarium works on Thursday. It inspired a sense of wonder, "oohs" and "ahhs" among current students. Stacie Huber is an eighth grader.

“I remember just...watching the sci-fi channel. Now it’s all blown up in 3D and it's really cool to feel like you’re kind of inside of it!” Huber said.

For former Colonial District students, it’s a world away from the old planetarium, built in 1968. Many – like district employee Betsy Fleetwood – would visit the old planetarium on field trips.

“The stars would pop up, they would go away,” Fleetwood said. “It’s so much more lifelike [now]. Today we got to experience going up through the spine and seeing the skull and those things weren’t available at the time of the [old] planetarium – it was mainly constellations.”

Planetariums became popular in the 1950s, when the United States was in the space race against the Soviet Union. As NPR reported earlier this year, many schools brought in planetariums after President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed an act to give the states over $1 billion in funding for things like science and math. However, many planetariums were later mothballed due to the cost of upgrades or repairs.

McCullough’s planetarium was retired in the 2006 to 2007 school year. Principal Ige Purnell said the school just didn’t have the funding to bring a teacher in to run it.

The technology for the old planetarium sits on display at McCullough Middle School.
Credit Courtesy of Colonial School District

Teachers say they are exploring ways to allow students from other schools and even members of the community to come in and use the planetarium.

Purnell says now – all teachers have been trained on the unique 3D laser technology. There will be plenty of opportunities to embed it into their classroom curriculum.

“Any time that we have an opportunity to engage our kids in anything in regards to STEAM, we hope they’ll be able to take that because it’s going to prepare them for high school and beyond.”

Besides embedding it into the curriculum, some teachers, like eighth grade English teacher Karen Keys, said they’d like to launch an afterschool program where they can teach the students how to make their own presentations on the projector.

“This opens up a world of opportunities for our students to be able to see the earth and be able to see different things rather than just reading about it,” Keys said.