PCMS students have their heads in the stars
Planetarium offers fun, interesting content
If you missed the partial lunar eclipse that took place on Aug. 7, 2017, Jaime Rufo has a way of recreating it with a simple touch of a button.
Eighth-grade students in her astronomy class had the opportunity to revisit that day when they took a seat inside the dome of the Port Chester Middle School planetarium.
Suddenly the white dome above the blue cushioned seats where the class had settled showed a bright blue sky that grew increasingly darker as the moon crossed between the earth and the sun. Eventually the only thing left was the very edges of the sun shining in the sky. This example was from a part of a country that had the benefit of having a more direct view of the 2017 summer eclipse.
In the Greater New York City area, Ms. Rufo recalled, it was a hot, hazy day and only afforded a partial lunar eclipse. She went outside to have a look and was glad to return to the air conditioning a few minutes later, she said.
Some of her students remembered the event. One, who was in Florida at the time, had donned a welder’s helmet in order to look directly at what was taking place. At the time, there had been a lot of news coverage about the importance of wearing protective eye gear in order to view this eclipse. Without it, people could have experienced irreversible eye damage.
The class discussed what an eclipse is, the various kinds that occur and what ancient people thought about them.
Unlike our ancestors, we now know an eclipse takes place when the moon passes between the sun and the earth, either fully or partially blocking the sun. We also have a better understanding of moon phases and the rotation of the earth and can even predict when they will take place. For instance, the next eclipse, which will be a total eclipse, will be on April 8, 2024.
Students learned more about the timing and location of future eclipses and had an opportunity to draw what an eclipse looks like.
The school’s planetarium dates back to a bygone era of the space race when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act. The law was a reaction to the surprise announcement that the Soviet Union had launched the satellite Sputnik into orbit in 1957. To encourage interest in the skies and inspire students to continue studying space, the American education system placed an emphasis on the study of astronomy.
At that time, the government offered federal grants to school districts to construct a planetarium in their school. Many were constructed during the 1970s.
Port Chester Middle School was fortunate to receive one of the grants. Other nearby schools — Harrison High School and New Rochelle High School — also benefitted from the funding.
“The problem is maintaining it,” Ms. Rufo said, adding it can be expensive to equip the dome with the necessary technology.
As the race to space cooled the domes were abandoned in many districts. Some schools repurposed them.
In the 1990s the dome at her school was being used for storage space, Ms. Rufo said.
In 2016, the school was outfitted with a Spitz SciDome, which uses Starry Night software to produce the night sky any time of day. The school received a grant which enabled it to install a new floor, seats, computers and projectors.
“Everything is brand new,” Ms. Rufo said. “It’s very exciting.”
This is the teacher’s third year in Port Chester, having previously taught earth science in New York City. She teaches sixth and eighth grade astronomy.
“What is really nice about the planetarium is they become very enthusiastic about it,” she said of her students.
New York, Ms. Rufo said, has an earth science curriculum which covers astronomy, although technically the subject is related to physics.
“I feel like I can delve a little deeper,” she said of having an astronomy course and the planetarium to use. Here she can create 3D models of the solar system and develop animated shows on specific celestial events.
“It’s shock and awe,” Ms. Rufo said of the reaction students have when they first enter the dome. “They can’t believe it.”
Sixth-graders enjoy a course which covers the solar system, galaxies and the stars. Eighth-graders learn about eclipses, moon phases and the seasons.
“I see the sparks of interest light up, I love seeing that,” Ms. Rufo said of her students.
Several times throughout the school year, Ms. Rufo invites the public to Community Astronomy Nights to learn more about the sky. She also hosts events in the planetarium. Information regarding upcoming events is posted on the PCMS website at portchesterschools.org. click on Academies, then select Special Areas/Teachers.