Astronomy Begins Simply Enough: 'Look Up There'

Planetariums Are Winning Students To Science

December 01, 1991|By Jodi Bizar | Jodi Bizar,Contributing writer

If you're a fifth- or sixth-grader in the county public schools, youalready know you don't need a watch to tell the time of day.

You can determine the time by looking at the sun and using the skills you've been taught in the school system's little-known planetarium program.

It's a program that uses three planetariums to teach lessons ranging from the important to the sublime -- astronomy-wise -- to 32,000 students in kindergarten to 12th grade every year.

Harford County Planetarium Co-director David L. Duchon says the heart of the programlies in tying lessons about the solar system to skills students are learning each day in school.

For example, elementary school students studying geometry are shown how to apply that knowledge to measurehow long it takes for the moon to circle the earth. High school students might be taught mathematical formulas to determine how far away a star is, based on its brightness.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the program, though, is star-gazing, with the help of an $80,000 Spitz A3P projector that replicates solar sights in the planetariums.

Stewart Chapman, the other director of the Planetarium Program, and Duchon say students are introduced to astronomy at the elementary level in the belief they'll find science studies more interesting later.

Chapman said students learn skills at the planetarium that will help them in other courses. For example, students learn to measure angles, a skill that will help them in math, as well as to create and read maps, which will help them in social studies and geography.

Duchon operates two of the three planetariums in the public schools, the Edgewood Middle School Planetarium and the Aberdeen High School Planetarium. Chapman is in charge of the planetarium at SouthamptonMiddle.

Before students come to one of the planetariums, Duchon visits their classrooms to give an elementary lesson in astronomy.

Young elementary students visit the planetariums once a year, but some middle and high school students come four times a year.

Those students learn more detail about the constellations, sky mapping, the moon and the solar system. Students are also shown what the planets look like. Photographs of planets taken from the space probe Voyager are used. Duchon said he was tired of the drawings of planets and decided to spend $75 of his own money to purchase the photographs.

He said he encourages students to pursue the study of astronomy and to consider careers as astronauts by noting that the United States and Soviet Union plan to fly to Mars in 2020 in a joint venture.

"It's conceivable that they could be on that trip," Duchon said.

Although Duchon feels the planetarium program is strong, he sees room for improvement.

He said he would like to see a third planetarium directorhired so that the directors would have time for a follow-up visit tothe schools after the students have been to the planetarium. Duchon said the position of a third director is included in the school's budget but probably won't be approved because of funding difficulties.

Studies show that students who have had a visit with the planetarium directors prior to coming to the planetarium retain 67 percent of what they learn at the planetarium, said Duchon. Adding a follow-up visit with directors could increase that percentage, he said.

The planetarium is open to the public after school. Duchon said he hopes more adults will take advantage of the three planetariums. To attend the planetarium, groups of at least 25 need to contact Duchon or Chapman.

Duchon said he enjoys teaching adults because they generally are enthusiastic and inquisitive.

When adult groups do attend, Duchon said, he shows them with the projector what the sky looks like at the time of year of their visit and points out constellations and other highlights, including an image of whatever planet is visible on that particular night.

"Then I go outside with them, and say, 'Look up there.' "

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