Chance to reach for stars at risk Wilde Lake Middle will have no room for planetarium

November 13, 1995|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

What to do with a used 19-foot-tall planetarium?

That's the question being asked these days about the Howard County school system's last relic of the 1960s space race.

The county used to have two planetariums, but no one seems to know what happened to the other. School officials figure the missing one is either buried in a county landfill or sitting in someone's attic. It would cost about $200,000 to replace it today.

As for the last existing planetarium -- a dome and specialized projection system -- school officials are divided as to whether it ought to be saved for future astronomy lessons or simply thrown away.

"We'd love to be able to keep it, but we don't know if we can afford it," lamented Lee Summerville, the county's science curriculum coordinator. "It's a real expensive luxury."

But teachers and parents at Centennial High School are urging that the planetarium be saved and installed in their school, preserving it as a resource for astronomy lessons.

Teachers can use the planetarium's projector to display the night sky on its 19-foot-tall dome and point out specific star patterns.

Now housed at Wilde Lake Middle School, the planetarium hasn't been used for at least four years, as the county's budget crisis of 1991 led to the elimination of the system's last astronomy teaching position.

As-tronomy field trips by schools across the county to the Wilde Lake planetarium have been replaced by excursions to the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore, Ms. Summerville said.

Meanwhile, the planetarium has been serving as much-needed classroom space.

The question of the planetarium's future has become urgent this year because Wilde Lake Middle is to undergo extensive renovations beginning next summer, and school officials need to decide what to do with the dome.

Similar renovations were done last summer to Patapsco Middle School -- former home of the second planetarium -- and its astronomy room was converted into a computer lab.

In the process, Patapsco Middle's planetarium disappeared and probably was destroyed, school officials say.

It's likely that Wilde Lake Middle's astronomy room will be converted into a classroom, leaving school officials unsure what to do with the dome -- and the Centennial science department's wish for it to be moved there.

"We can't let this last planetarium be destroyed," said Ed Rohde, chairman of Centennial's science department.

"Astronomy is an essential part of the science that students will be expected to know, and we should do everything we can to preserve the dome."

Mr. Rohde and the Centennial science faculty offered their school as the planetarium's new home, and suggested that space for the planetarium could be created during the school's planned renovation. He estimated that it would cost several thousand dollars to move it.

Supporters of moving the planetarium to Centennial list several reasons to choose their school, including their science faculty's understanding of how to use it and the school's bright student body.

"Over the years, the school has trained a significant number of students who have gone on to college in the sciences," supporters wrote in a letter to local newspapers.

"The school is noted for its outstanding achievements in academics as evidenced by its high SAT averages and the large number of National Merit scholarships. Its students have also won numerous science awards and scholarships."

The planetarium also could be used by students at Howard Community College, said Russ Poch, a physical science professor at the college. He said he often used the planetarium for his own classes until it was shut down in 1991.

"Astronomy is a key component of the curriculum recommendations from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and now we're talking about throwing away a planetarium," Mr. Rohde said. "They're throwing away something they have that can help teach students."

But school officials question the expense of keeping the planetarium. It requires the space of about two classrooms, and its projector's maintenance costs are high because it's so old, Ms. Summerville said.

Ms. Summerville said she is working with Centennial High to see what can be done, but she doesn't even know where the disassembled dome could be stored between Wilde Lake Middle's renovations this summer and 2000, when Centennial's renovations are to be completed.

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