Planetarium returns, wows students at Delaware middle school

It’s not often that students in a classroom spontaneously exclaim, “Ooooh!”

Or “Aaaah!”

Or WOW!”

But that’s exactly how the awestruck kids at McCullough Middle School in New Castle reacted Thursday when their new IMAX-like planetarium was unveiled.

Whether zooming in on their own building using satellite imagery, taking a journey through the human skeletal system, or gazing at the Earth and other planets, the sixth-through eighth-graders couldn’t help but express wonder at Colonial School District’s new high-tech attraction and sophisticated learning tool.

The nearly one-ton dome, which rises 30 feet above the ground and is 30-feet wide, replaces an antiquated planetarium that the school mothballed a decade ago. The new one, which cost about $400,000 in state, district and private funds, will initially be used by McCullough students but will eventually expand to other Colonial schools and the community, perhaps for movie nights.

The former planetarium’s projector, mothballed a decade ago, now occupies a display case at McCullough. (Courtesy of Colonial School District)

Teachers in all disciplines are now being trained to use the system to teach an array of subjects. The school has three programs teachers can use to adapt to lessons in their classrooms — Starry Night, Layered Earth and Zygot Body.

English teacher Karen Keys, who gave one of the demonstrations Thursday to students, officials and the media, said she can use the planetarium to highlight New Orleans and enhance her instruction on a book about Hurricane Katrina.

“It can possibly go back to what the Earth looked like during Hurricane Katrina so they can see the water over New Orleans,” she said.

Seeing satellite images, or three dimensional images of the body, Keys said, can help students relate better than they do with textbooks or a smart board, the interactive electronic blackboard common in classrooms today.

“Our kids are very visual and this will completely open up their education and open their eyes to the fact that the world’s much bigger than New Castle, Delaware,” Keys said.

Principal Ige Purnell, who had predicted that Thursday’s unveiling would be a “jaw-dropping” experience, said the planetarium is yet another tool her STEAM-themed school can use to engage students in science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

Purnell said the technology will be especially beneficial at McCullough, where 60 percent of students are from low-income households and 15 percent are designated for a special education curriculum. Proficiency is below the state average in all four major subjects — English, math, science and social studies, statistics from standardized testing show.

“One of the things we realized with our high-needs population is that our students weren’t engaged in the curriculum,” Purnell said. “It just didn’t excite them.”

“Building in this technology and just having this resource available to them and for them to see these concepts come to life, it sparks excitement. It sparks energy. The kids are engaged. They want to see what’s going on and that actually helps student achievement because they are paying attention when they wouldn’t have paid attention if they were just in a classroom with a textbook talking about the same thing.

“Now they have this 3D come to life activity and it’s more engaging. They want to be there to see what’s going on. They want to be involved. They want to try it.”

Eighth-grader Savannah Ellingsworth agreed.

“It’s 3D,” she gushed. “On a Smart board it’s 2D and you might get distracted. In here you don’t get distracted. It pops out and it’s pretty cool.”

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