Maple Grove Unveils Digital Planetarium

ELLERY – Students at Maple Grove Junior-Senior High School had an opportunity to explore the Milky Way galaxy from within their own auditorium.

A digital planetarium, on loan to the high school from Erie-2 BOCES, provided students with a unique glimpse at a digitally rendered representation of the night sky.

The planetarium is known as a “digitarium” and is manufactured by Digitalis Education Systems. It is an inflatable dome that expands to a height of 11 feet and a width of 14 feet, making it big enough to fit a medium-sized classroom within. In imitation of the sky, data and imagery stored within a hard drive is projected onto the roof of the dome.

Several features of the digitarium include: a view of the sky from any location on Earth, as well as any planet or moon in the galaxy; the ability to “time travel” to any date within 1,000 years to witness events such as a solar eclipse or a comet fly-by; the ability to travel through the galaxy on a selected comet’s trajectory; a depiction of all visible constellations through illustrations and names; and a time lapse feature, allowing viewers to cycle through seasons at a rapid rate.

The digitarium was rented for use at Maple Grove by Chris Johnson, a ninth-grade Earth science teacher, who assembled the digitarium in the orchestra section of Maple Grove’s auditorium. According to Johnson, this is the third consecutive year that he has used the digitarium’s advanced technology for educational purposes.

“I’ve got it here for a week,” said Johnson. “I bring the kids down and we do different activities, such as filling out data sheets and taking measurements. So it’s great because, rather than showing them a picture on a piece of paper, I can bring them in here and show them what we’re trying to explain to them with a diagram.”

He added: “Most of the kids have seen a planetarium at some point, but this takes it to the next level. It’s got a projector and a preloaded hard drive, which allows me to fast-forward to around 1,000 years in the future. In my classroom, I wrote down the (date of) the next solar eclipse that will be (visible from) the United States. So I’m going to fast-forward to that date, and we can watch it in here. And the other nice thing is, you don’t have to worry about (visibility issues such as) clouds being in the way.”

While Johnson has incorporated the digitarium into his classes for three years, this is the first time that he has involved the parents in this unique experience.

“I thought it would be cool to show the parents what it is that we’re doing, because I know we didn’t have (digitariums) when I was a kid,” he said. “So I figured I would (invite) them up here and run half-hour sessions to take them through a little bit of everything.”

On Wednesday, parents were invited to come with their kids and experience the digitarium for themselves. The event ran in four half-hour sessions from 6-8 p.m. According to Johnson, approximately 20 parents were in attendance. Johnson ran through several of the digitarium’s demonstration videos, including: showing the path of the sun throughout the different seasons, as viewed from Bemus Point; showing the position of the Earth, sun and moon during the moon phases; showing the next total lunar eclipse (on April 14, 2014) and the next solar eclipse visible from New York state (on Aug. 21, 2017); showing the rotation of constellations around Polaris and how they change from season to season; and taking a comet ride around the sun on the McNaught Comet of 2006.

“This has all been calculated out, and it’s all accurate,” Johnson said. “It’s really cool.”

Johnson had also planned to hold another parents’ night event on Thursday evening, for which 25-30 parents had signed up. However, after-school activities for Maple Grove were cancelled.

Digitalis Education Systems’ digital planetarium system is the market leader worldwide. The first digitarium model was released by Digitalis in 2003. There are now more than 400 digitariums spread across the globe. To learn more about Digitalis and the different models of digitariums, visit: www.digitaliseducation.com.