A disused planetarium at the middle school in Eastern Lebanon County School District has a murky past but a bright future, as the celestial projection system is reinvented for a new generation of ELCO students.

“Not many school districts have a planetarium,” district superintendent Julia Vicente told LebTown. “It’s been used as a classroom since the planetarium stopped being used. It’s unique – you’re in a circle, and you’re under a dome.”

The district administration has surprisingly little information about the planetarium’s history. Vicente said she’s not even sure when it was built, or why.

A few months of research failed to turn up any useful information, she said.

“One of the things, with the planetarium,” she said, “is if you are an ELCO alum, or if you hear alumni talk about when the planetarium used – it was an event. The building would shake. … When you mention the planetarium to a lot of alums, they just light up.”

The school stopped using the planetarium at some point – again, Vicente said she didn’t know when – because of the costs associated with running it.

But she said she has wanted for years to bring it back into regular use.

“When I came to the district and found out about it, I got excited and said we had to bring it back,” she said. “The journey to bring the planetarium back started six years ago, my first year with the district.”

School officials started to research the possibilities of resurrecting the facility, but “then the pandemic hit and everything stopped,” she said. Even so, Vicente said, the pause gave them more time to figure out what was obsolete and needed to be replaced.

District business manager Michael Miller noted that the old planetariums used star projectors, but “they don’t use that technology any more.”

“Now it’s more computer based,” Miller said. “The new system will have two projectors. It’s more software-based, rather than hardware-based the way it was in the past. The potential to run shows is open ended. You can branch out to all types of sciences.”

Vicente said the planetarium’s old star projector will be preserved and put on display in the facility. A donor wall will recognize people who helped fund the project.

Gala fundraiser

The planetarium is the beneficiary of a fundraiser called, aptly enough, “A Night Under the Stars,” the ELCO Education Foundation’s annual gala, which will be held Saturday, Aug. 12, at Willow Springs Estates, 199 Millardsville Road, Richland.

“The foundation is very excited about partnering with the school district to bring the planetarium back,” Vicente said.

“Save the Date!” a flyer for the event reads. “The ELCO Education Foundation cordially invites you to…A Night Under the Stars!”

“This year’s annual gala will support the renovation of the ELCO Planetarium. The planetarium projector has been out of use for more than a decade, and EEF is committed to bringing back this amazing piece of ELCO’s curricular history for today’s students,” it continues. “Please join us for an evening of stargazing, music, food, drinks, live/silent auctions, and more! … We look forward to an out-of-this-world event as we support the students of ELCO. Hope to see you there!”

The foundation’s website provides a few more details about the project.

“Few classes excited ELCO Middle School students more than Space Science in the planetarium. Years of alumni can talk about Mr. Phillips and can still name all of the stars in the Big Dipper,” the website reads. “With the commitment of the ELCO School District and the ELCO Education Foundation, the planetarium will undergo a renovation and re-imagination to serve current and future Raiders.”

“Our vision is, it’s not just going to be for middle school science,” Vicente noted. “We see it as a hub for our community. We see bringing primary students over. We envision bringing high school students over, to enhance their curriculum. And we see this becoming something the community can use, for fundraising.”

The foundation has committed to raising about $200,000 toward the cost of renovating the planetarium, she said. That covers nearly half of the $409,000 cost.

“The rest of the money has already been budgeted and is in our accounts,” Vicente said.

The ELCO school board in April approved a recommendation from the finance committee to award the $409,414 bid to Gordian/Lobar Construction for a two-projector planetarium system at the middle school.

The foundation website says SSIA Technologies, “which specializes in planetariums and immersive venues, will install a state-of-the-art system to take students on journeys through space, adventures in history, under the sea, and many more. Programs in the planetarium will benefit students in all grades and across numerous academic areas.”

“We’re really looking forward to it. We’re excited,” Vicente said. “We’re anticipating that it will be ready for us next year.”

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Tom has been a professional journalist for nearly four decades. In his spare time, he plays fiddle with the Irish band Fire in the Glen, and he reviews music, books and movies for Rambles.NET. He lives with his wife, Michelle, and has four children: Vinnie, Molly, Annabelle and Wolf.


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