MCLA

Portable Planetarium

02/02/2011

Since 2007, thousands of area students in kindergarten through grade 12 have learned more about science and their world thanks to Starlab, an inflatable planetarium that visits their schools and other public venues throughout Berkshire County. Starlab is a program of the Berkshire STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Pipeline, of which MCLA is the lead partner.

Funded by a STEM Pipeline grant from the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, the Starlab is part of MCLA's Science Resource Center and is available to Berkshire County educators. It provides a unique learning environment for students as it presents information in an engaging and interactive way.

Through Starlab, students can learn about the night sky, astronomy, plate tectonics, weather, and much more, according to Monica Joslin, dean of academic affairs at MCLA.

"The Digital Starlab is a compact planetarium projection system designed to produce starfield images for portable and small fixed domes," Joslin explained. "It features a custom fisheye lens, capable of depicting an accurate, high-contrast (12,000:1), simulated night sky with the capacity to explore a multitude of motions and displays, eliminating the need for additional slide projectors, video projectors, sound systems or computers.

"Covering a full 180 degrees on the dome, the small bright stars remain spherical right down to the horizon," Joslin continued. "Using a laptop interface, users can choose from a set of 12 scripted, national standards-based lessons or two full curriculum modules that are included with the system."

The planetarium travels throughout Berkshire County and southern Vermont. In recent months Starlab was at Conte School in Pittsfield, Mass., at Stamford Elementary School in Stamford, Vt., and at Hancock Elementary School in Hancock, Mass. This month, students in Richmond, Mass., will experience Starlab.

Linda Wagner, a former STEM Fellow and a professional educator, offers the Starlab workshops for many of the schools.

"Working with children and teachers in the Starlab is truly a thrilling opportunity. It is one of those experiences that is a genuine 'Oooh, aaah' moment, where children make the connection between their own experiences and the world of science. Nothing could be more rewarding for a teacher than that," Wagner said.

According to Joslin, MCLA decided to become involved in the Starlab program because it serves as a wonderful educational tool by providing a "laboratory" for STEM learning that can be adjusted to different age levels.

"Starlab creates a unique learning environment for virtually every level of education," Joslin said. "It can be used for far more than just astronomy. Best of all, Starlab can be set up right in the classroom, gym, auditorium, or cafeteria."

When the Starlab comes to a school it may stay for only one day or for an entire week, depending on each school's curriculum. Some offer Starlab workshops at the beginning of the semester, or at the end of an instructional unit as a field trip.

Aligned with the Berkshire Compact for Education, the Berkshire STEM Pipeline aims to increase student interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics - both as fields of study and as potential careers. Other STEM activities held at MCLA include the Region I High School Science Fair and the Region I Middle School Science Fair.

For more information, go to www.mcla.edu/About_MCLA/Community/stempipeline/starlab .