Portable planetarium puts stars in reach at Chilmark School

Fourth- and fifth-graders take in a panoramic view of New York city inside the dome. — Photo by Janet Hefler

Chilmark School students visited outer space and inner space last Thursday morning, without ever leaving their building. Their journeys took place inside the Discovery Dome, a portable, inflatable planetarium about 13 feet high, with a 20-foot diameter dome, set up in the school’s great room.

Tom Pham, the Discovery Dome’s New England sales and rentals rep, set up the big blue structure before students arrived. Although those in grades two through five knew it was coming, the younger children in preschool through first grade did not, head of school Susan Stevens said, to avoid causing them any apprehension.

As a result, many of the younger students asked eagerly if it was a bounce house when they first saw it, Ms. Stevens said. First-grader Charlotte Scott told The Times she thought it was “a big bubble,” and kindergartner Cian Davis, “a blue-colored igloo.” Based on their comments and some from older students, the Discovery Dome earned the highest accolades of “really cool” and “awesome.”

Students stepped into the dome through an airlock entrance, which some of them likened to boarding a spaceship. The mini-planetarium holds up to 35 students, plus a teacher. Chilmark School’s small class sizes allowed students the advantage of laying on their backs on the floor, to take in a 360-degree view of the dome’s rounded ceiling.

The Discovery Dome offers 25 programs, geared for different age groups and also interests, from astronomy to dinosaurs, history and the human body. The programs range in length from 35 minutes, for younger children, to 45 minutes for older students.

Using “Night of the Titanic” as an example, Mr. Pham said, “We use a compelling story, such as the sinking of the Titanic, and tie in lessons about human error, icebergs and weather, the planet’s climate cycles and the jetstream, and the effects of the sun.”

That was a good choice for the grade 2/3 students, especially second-grader Yossi Monahan. “My favorite was the Titanic; I’m not really interested in the stars,” he said.

The class also watched the “Amazing Astronomers of Antiquity,” which Ms. Stevens said tied in nicely with some upcoming curriculum. “They’re getting ready to study and learn about writing biographies, so it showed them what information they would want to find out,” she said.

Third-grader Jack Lionette said the program taught him about past discoveries by astronomers from different countries. “All of them found how we use the stars today; like when you’re sailing, you use the moon and sun to discover which way you’re going,” he said.

In advance of the dome’s arrival, the grade 4/5 class took a vote on what two programs they would like to see. They selected “Lucy’s Cradle,” about life in the solar system and human evolution on Earth, and “Body Code,” about the human biology down to the cellular level.

Fourth-grader Silas Abrams said the “Body Code” made him feel as though he was really traveling on the movie’s imaginary voyage inside a human being.

“It was really cool, because you were going inside organisms,” he said. “It was like 3D, and everything was coming at you.”

“I enjoyed the ‘Lucy’s Cradle’ video, because I love evolution,” fifth-grader Noah Glasgow said. “I play a video game nowadays on the computer called ‘Spore,’ and it’s all about evolution, so I think that was what was really fascinating for me personally.”

Both he and Silas have been to the Boston Museum of Science’s large planetarium. They said they also liked the Discovery Dome because of its smaller, up-close environment.

Silas said he thought the dome would only have a screen inside and was surprised to see the movies projected overhead.

Ms. Stevens said the dome’s movies were convincingly realistic, but not in a frightening way, for some of the younger students as well. After the kindergartners and first graders watched the “Secrets of the Cardboard Rocket,” a couple of them excitedly told her the dome had actually taken them up in the air.

After the last show, Mr. Pham deflated the large dome in a matter of minutes and packed it and the the video projection system, in a matter of minutes. As Discovery Dome’s New England rep for e-Planetarium, a division of MTPE, Inc., he transports and sets up the dome by himself.

Mr. Pham said he helped launch the program as the sales manager for the MTPE, for which Discovery Dome was created. Although he currently works full-time at Mass Maritime Academy, he takes the dome to schools, libraries, and special events in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and southern New Hampshire on a part-time basis.

Ms. Stevens arranged for the Discovery Dome’s rental through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP). “The grant helps fund educational experiences children in rural districts wouldn’t be exposed to on a regular basis,” she said.

The Discovery Dome cost $450 to rent for three consecutive hours of programs, plus Mr. Pham’s ferry expenses.

For more information, contact Mr. Pham at tpham@eplanetarium.com or visit the website www.discoverydome.com.