Saving the Planetarium in Arlington
I got an urgent message from an ex student , now a friend. She said ” Miss Bracey they are going to close the Planetarium!!” We tried to figure out what to do. In the end it was a passionate teacher and parent who saved the day, but we oiled the wheels to get the fight started. You can read about it here We talked to the Washington Post. We wrote letters. We enlisted the help of other former students. A parent with this video saved the day.
Maybe someone taught me about the stars in school. If so I don’t remember it. What I remember is some lady from NASA who did a presentation on the cultural aspects of astronomy at the Smithsonian. Pictures from Egypt, the Maya and many other sources. That kept me reading and thinking a long time. My first visit to a planetarium was as a teacher in Arlington , VIrginia. Steve Smith was the director and the link to NASA for me. I am a Challenger Fellow. I don’t know how to repay NASA for the things I learned, but the first link was from the Planetarium. The second link was Star Wars and the imagination and interest of the children I taught. We built robots, we created space ships, we made planetary cities and yes, we made telescopes.
I live in Washington DC. You don’t see a lot of stars in the night sky here. I taught in Arlington Virginia and had access to the Planetarium there. I discovered that a planetarium was a fascinating place. My students and I went often. It was before a lot of technology, but you know there are things that can be shared in a planetarium that make sense because you see them. The children and I found out about NASA resources and some of us were on a lifelong journey. Young Astronauts, the Challenger Center and working to follow in Christa McAuliffe’s step, kept me busy. When Christa died, I had created a classroom to show a simulated inside of a shuttle. I left the broadcast for a moment. It was the fatal moment.
When I returned all eyes were on me. The explosion had happened. All day long children hugged me. They thought because I had an astronaut jumpsuit that I might have been a candidate for being in the shuttle.( not) I was heartbroken but the lesson I learned from that day is that children are colorblind and that hard work is easy if it is interesting. I followed the NASA initiatives. I thought, if the children think I can be an astronaut, I can at least learn more. And I have done a lot. But the work that the children did was amazing.
Most of the NASA initiatives happened in the Arlington Planetarium. What is that? It is the David M. Brown Planetarium. I am afraid I never knew or did not remember to whom it was dedicated. Here is the link.
Linking the Planetarium with the Night Sky
Another adventure I had was with Phoebe Knipling at the Outdoor Lab. Mr. Hunsucker used his flashlight to tell us about the night sky ( I never saw a thing with that flashlight), but Phoebe had a ginormous telescope that she would get Mr. Hunsucker to open the shed so we could use it and point to the night sky. We could see the stars from Haymarket , Virginia.
Sometimes when it was the right time of year there were amateur astronomers who would come to the Outdoor lab and let kids look through their telescopes. Our school was near enough to NSF that I could run and get some wonderful posters and information.
The Planetarim…First you teach the seasonal stuff and then…
Using telescopes As Planet Earth wheels its way around the sun, our nightly sky-viewing platform redirects our view to a different part of the celestial sphere. While nightly changes are not so noticeable, monthly changes welcome new star groups into view and bid farewell to others until their season in the sky returns. I guess you can teach this on a computer, but the problem is everyone does not have one. A planetarium is an experience that is
what I called an involved aesthetic experience.
It is art and music and vision and light and so on. It depends on the skill of the person
teaching the lesson and the teacher supporting the lesson and the resources that are available. Some years I had Mike Lounge , the astronaut and a couple of others who came to the classroom. Some years I was taking courses at the Hubble Space Science Institute. We had books, resources, a computer and constructivist projects.
But I digress
You know what S-mores are ? WHen I saw kids pass up anothe S’more and hot cocoa to get in line for the telescope, I knew that it was fascinating. We used the planetarium, we looked at the night sky and we had NASA as a resource, later in my teaching career we had
the Challenger Center. The NASA initiatives were wonderful. There was Moon Base Alpha, and then Marsville, and later Mars City Alpha. It never was a problem to get the kids to learn
the information. My students were generous enough with their learning to create a Mars CIty Alpha for kids who were not in my class. They did it after school. I saw it when I was driving my car home. I almost ran off of the road. We loved those learning projects. While the visit to the Challenger Center was one day, we worked to build the knowledge to be able to work on that one day. It was fascinating for the students and for me.
We wore NASA out. We had parents who were astronauts, access to Langley and some of us, as teacher advocates took lessons from NASA and we had stuff. We had access to tapes, books, and there was a thing you could do with wonderful posters from the NASA science resource center. You could make your classroom so beautiful with those posters , which were learning experiences. We built systems for space, pondering the problems. We did bottle biology and fish farming. George Lucas fueled our imagination with his movies and at the time I was on the advisory board, so I would come back from the ranch with movies and games. We had lots of things, but the planetarium was our meeting place for initiatives and learning more.
I signed up for the moon rocks, but we never got them. I never had a principal who cared enough to allow me to share the moon rocks. But , the Smithsonian was there. Here’s a view of what I can share with kids using the Smithsonian, and the resource out at
I did get the space suit to let kids try on from time to time. Never got the van that was supposed to come to the schools either. Principals were often suspicious of these initiatives . So I went to Langley to learn and to bring what I could back in the way of knowledge. The kids and I flourished with the knowledge I gained in the various initiatives. But I also went to Goddard and learned a lot.
Close the Planetarium?
When they said they were going to close the Planetarium, students, wrote to me on facebook. What can we do? These students are parents now.. but we were concerned because we remembered the planetarium visits and the study of space. One student asked if the computer was a good exchange for a planetarium visit. I replied NO!!
We wrote to the Washington Post. The media picked up the story. I wrote to the school board, but the participatory culture gave us all a place to create support for the planetarium.
The stars will shine in the David M. Brown Planetarium next year, after the Arlington County School Board unanimously approved a new budget Thursday night.
The $442 million operating budget includes $114,000 to keep the planetarium open part time. The budget includes a part-time teaching position for the facility, which now has 2 1/2 positions for teaching and scheduling shows.
“The main thing is the doors will stay open,” School Board Chairman Sally Baird said.
School administrators recommended closing the aging planetarium this year, citing its outdated equipment and questionable educational value.
“Parents and community members rallied to save the facility, which was named for a graduate of Arlington’s Yorktown High School who was killed in the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster. More than 900 people signed an online petition, and more than 3,000 joined an online Save the Arlington Planetarium Facebook page. Some residents formed a Friends of the Arlington Planetarium group, which has pledged to raise money to update the 1960s-era technology. ”
Here is the WashingtonPost story