By Beth Donze, Kids’ Clarion
Imagine climbing into a kind of Space Walk – but one that is completely enclosed and devoid of its “bouncy” floor.
Inside, the domed space above is a 360-degree video screen offering observers realistic, moving, computer-fed panoramas of phenomena such as sunrise and sunset, the rotating and revolving planets and the shifting phases of the moon.
This portable planetarium can inflate within five minutes; deflated, it can be folded, stored in a duffel bag and thrown into the trunk of a small SUV.
Welcome to the Academy of the Sacred Heart’s Starlab, which has been bringing astronomy, geology and other sciences to bringing astronomy, geology and other sciences to life for students since February.
“They gasp. They ‘ooh’ and ‘aah.’ They squeal. It’s very different than just talking about the phases of the moon, looking at pictures or doing PowerPoints in the classroom,” said Jennifer Adams, Sacred Heart’s Lower School science teacher. “Starlab makes them feel like they’re in space and that they’re actually experiencing the phases in one class.”
Adams can pause the video, reverse and fast forward it, and zoom in and out with the click of a mouse.
The close-up views of lunar movement, for example, teach students that the moon is not actually changing shapes, but waning and waxing, depending on its position between the earth and sun.
“It brings it all together,” Adams said. “I’ve had girls come in and say, ‘Ms. Adams, did you see the moon was a waxing gibbous last night?’ With this they’re looking at the sky, almost as in real life, and they’re examining it in real time.”
Third grader Colette English said Starlab makes her feel like she’s in a spaceship.
“You can see all the different moon phases and why they are changing,” Colette said.
Third grader Elizabeth Alford enjoys getting a celestial front-row seat.
“Sometimes at night it’s either super cloudy (to see the moon) or you can’t see the whole thing,” Elizabeth said. “When you’re in the Starlab you get a close look.”
Another time-lapse animation depicts the sun “rising” in the east, “setting” in the west and the sky darkening.
“The stars start to come up,” said Adams, who seizes the moment to teach her students about how the earth’s rotation caused night and day, while the sun and constellations remain in fixed positions. Adams can then zoom out to show the earth’s relation to the sun, its fellow revolving planets and its tiny membership in the wider Milky Way.
Sacred Heart’s fourth graders have been using Starlab to probe the layers of the earth, earthquakes, volcanoes and plate tectonics. For example, Starlab can take them back in time to see the supercontinent of Pangea break up like puzzle pieces into the land masses we know today.
“I can show them the boundaries of the tectonic plates, and then they see red dots showing the locations of all recorded earthquakes,” Adams said. “They get to see where the (plate) boundaries are and why earthquakes tend to occur in those locations.”
Here is a peek at other ways the special technology is being used at Sacred Heart:
➤ Starlab helped sixth-grade science teacher Leigh Damaré enhance her classroom lessons on plate tectonics, ocean currents, erosion, weathering and plastic pollution.
➤ Seventh-grade teacher Melissa Wren-Dial used Starlab in concert with her unit on evolution. Students studied geologic time and mass extinction events.
➤ High school-level Starlab offerings include animations that bring cell biology to life.
Starlab was funded through a gift from Future Founders, an alumnae giving circle at Sacred Heart.