Reaching for the Stars

In late summer, the night sky over Nevada looks like Goliath himself tossed a sackful of diamonds against black velvet.

Searching low on the southern horizon, a grade school teacher uses a red flashlight pointer to trace an outline in a haphazard group of stars. For the first time, his audience sees Scorpius the same way the Greeks did.

However, it's actually the middle of the day, and the viewers are 25 teachers sitting on the floor of the Children's Museum of Northern Nevada. The sky they admire is the inner surface of a plastic inflatable dome called Starlab, a portable planetarium on display at the museum.

Starlab is a teaching tool educators are learning to use so they can make the stars and planets come alive for their students.

"Okay, let's see what the sky will look like tonight," said Gary Kratzer, a science teacher and consultant for Starlab. In front of him is a projector that acts as a three-dimensional star chart. He sets the date on a rotating wheel, then slides the time slot for 8 p.m.

"What about daylight-saving time?" someone asks.

"Good question," he answers, and subtracts one hour. He slowly turns up the dimmer switch, the August sky appears, and for the next half hour, the teachers are riveted by his tour of the heavens.

He reminds his seasoned listeners that Polaris can be found off the cup of the Big Dipper, not the handle, and that Sirius, often called Ceres, is the brightest star in the sky.

The portable planetarium uses Mylar-covered cylinders to throw up vivid images against the walls of the silver dome. Phases of the moon, the seasonal paths of the sun, star fields, the positions of the planets come in to view on the 10-by-16 foot inflatable dome.

Starlab can simulate the movement of the sky and display the follow-the-dot constellations the ancients saw. The dome uses a rotary electric fan and needs about 25 square feet of space to be set up. Users must get on their hands and knees and crawl through a 4-by-4-foot entrance tube to get inside.

"It's a neat tool," Kratzer said. "You can show the kids what the sky looked like on their birthday, or point out the Big Dipper, then have them go home that night and pick it out from their driveway."

Suzi Meehan, executive director of the Children's Museum, first saw Starlab at a kid's science fair sponsored by radio station Magic 95.5 last March in Reno.

"I fell in love with it," she said, and began writing a grant to try to get funds for it. She succeeded and received $16,000 from the Nauman Foundation which paid for the equipment, shipping and training.

Starlab will be on display at the museum until the end of the year, except for a break from Sept. 6-26, when the museum will be closed for renovation. Starting in January, teachers may rent it for $500 per week and take it to their schools.

Ellen Crane, a teacher at Schurz Elementary School, made the drive for the training session Monday at the museum.

"We'll have a science night, and since our school has an inner quad the kids will be able to go from the dome to right outside and see it for themselves," she said. "It'll be great because there's no light outside down there."

Debbie Maraskanish teaches third grade at John C. Fremont Elementary School in Carson City and figures they'll have to put it up in the library.

"The kids will love it," she said. "We'll rent it for the week so the whole school can go through it."


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