GREENFIELD — As Janeen Gill flicks off the lights in the planetarium at the high school, the kids in the room let out a unanimous “Whoa.”
Gill, a Greenfield-Central High School science teacher, points to the moon and the sun as she teaches the sixth-graders about the relationships among the most familiar parts of the solar system.
But the constellations are missing, and although the students are impressed with what they see, Gill wishes they could see the stars, too. After all, they’re the true “wow factor” of the planetarium, she said.
Since 1969, educators have used the planetarium — one of few in the state, Superintendent Harold Olin said — to teach children in the community about the solar system. The dome-shaped classroom originally came equipped with a projection system showing the stars, sun, moon and planets, allowing students to see the sky as they would from their own backyards.
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But the equipment, now more than 45 years old, is outdated and in disrepair, with some of the key features not work at all. Repairs have been made over the years to keep the system running, but some replacement parts are no longer provided by the company that made the control panel, officials say. Replacing the system would cost the district more than $180,000, so school officials have formed a committee to find affordable options to protect what they say is an educational gem.
Similar planetarium models would run between $30,000 and $75,000, an expense school officials say is a worthy investment in science education not just for Greenfield-Central students but the entire community.
Over the years, the facility has reached students of all ages, from elementary students just being introduced to science to high schoolers learning more complex concepts in their earth and science and physics classes. The planetarium has been used by other community organizations, including Scout groups, as well as students from other school corporations.
The planetarium has become even more important in education in recent years, said Gill, a member of the committee researching replacement options. As schools look to cut spending, they’ve decreased the number of field trips students take, so bringing students to other planetariums could be difficult, Gill said.
Throughout the years, educators have struggled with the system shutting off intermittently in the middle of presentations, and the overall experience isn’t what it could be if all parts were functioning properly, Olin said. The district will have to replace the system in order to keep using the planetarium room, whose dome shape could not be easily re-purposed for traditional classroom use.
It’s not a cheap endeavor, Olin said; however, the planetarium and has served students well for nearly 50 years and should be brought up to its original standard.
“It’s just not the experience we want it to be to enhance our … science curriculum,” Olin said.
They’ve formed a study committee to review their options, and the committee recently took a trip to an Indianapolis school using a more current model.
The planetarium is well-used, and educators will continue to incorporate it into their lessons, even in its half-usable state, Gill said. So far this year, she’s given more than 15 presentations despite the missing stars.
“When it was built, it was state of the art. Other places surely had to be jealous because it was top-notch,” she said. “It’s frustrating because you want to present it because it’s amazing.”
But it’s difficult to cover planetary lessons without showing students the full solar system, including the stars.
Sixth-grade Greenfield Intermediate School teacher Jessica Webster, who brought her students to the planetarium recently, said it’s difficult to teach students about the solar system in a normal classroom setting because they have trouble visualizing the night sky.
The planetarium helps bridge that gap, Webster said; her students, for example, were able to see how the moon and sun’s orbits affect seasons, a lesson they were already learning in class.
Gill said she’s hopeful the school board supports an initiative to upgrade the planetarium.
“I think we need it,” she said. “We’ve got the space, we’ve got the dome ceiling. We just need the display.”