Visiting labs have kids seeing stars

Domes: Portable planetariums traveling to Baltimore County's elementary schools are piquing pupils' interest in space - and, it's hoped, in science and math.

January 21, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Jasmyn Watkins is ready to do her part for the space initiative President Bush announced last week.

Inspired by the portable planetarium now inflated in her Featherbed Lane Elementary School gymnasium - as well as the astronauts who came to her school yesterday to celebrate it - the second-grader explained why she, too, is ready to don a spacesuit.

"Because you can go up to space and see all the stars," Jasmyn, 7, said as she stood at the structure's tunnel-like entrance.

Her reaction is what Baltimore County public school officials were hoping for when they purchased two $17,770 inflatable Starlabs, the county's newest astronomy and science teaching tools.

It was also what they were expecting when they invited astronauts Thomas D. Jones, a graduate of Kenwood Senior High School in Essex, and Robert L. Curbeam Jr., who attended Featherbed and Woodlawn High School, to talk to the children at a space assembly yesterday.

"OK, who's going to be an astronaut?" Featherbed Lane Principal Eileen Copple asked the crowd of children, as Jones and Curbeam stood beside her.

Dozens of hands shot into the air.

The astronauts and Starlabs are part of a continuing effort by the county public schools to emphasize math and science, said Superintendent Joe A. Hairston.

In the fall, the school board approved the purchase of the two labs, which will rotate throughout the county's 103 elementary schools.

The Starlabs, created by a Massachusetts middle school teacher and his students in the early 1980s, are intended to spark children's interest in the stars, the universe and science in general, Hairston said.

Although they look like inflated igloos from the outside, on the inside Starlabs resemble planetariums, with constellations and planets projected onto the curved walls and ceiling. Students can see Maryland's night sky, devoid of air pollution, or see the galaxy as the ancient Egyptians did thousands of years ago.

"You'd think you're in one of those permanent planetariums, except you're sitting on the floor," said Tim Kent, one of the two instructors who will travel to schools with the lab.

Jones, who has taken more than 19 hours of space walks, said the Starlab is a chance for all students to share the excitement of space.

"I think it opens up the wonder of the universe to a much broader audience," he said. "The Maryland Science Center is fabulous, but you have to take a visit there."

For Curbeam, the visit to his old elementary school was a chance to get kids pumped up about space. He and Jones spoke of being weightless, of eating without gravity, of performing scientific experiments that could help cure cancer.

"The kids we are talking to today, they are the kids who are going to Mars," Curbeam said, referring to the president's space initiative, which includes the goal of putting a human on the moon by 2020 and then going on to Mars. "It's not going to be Tom and me."

Mars may be OK, said Jasmyn and her classmate, DeVontae Eden, 7. But the second-graders' favorite celestial body is the moon, which their class has watched glide overhead in the darkened dome.

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