The East Lyme High School's planetarium was built circa 1970 as an instructional classroom and operated as such until 2013. Later in 2013, furniture and outdated equipment were removed. In 2016, Diane Swan, teacher and Niantic Center School’s science coordinator, discovered that the facility was to be repurposed as a resource room. She was determined to save this valuable space and restore it to a 21st century learning center.
In order to restore the room as a functioning planetarium, a complete restoration is needed. Upgrades will include modern projection technologies and enhanced programming. No Board of Education funds or tax dollars can be used to cover this upgrade or to operate the facility.
Diane consulted community member Andy Pappas, a leader in bringing the Children’s Museum of South Eastern Connecticut and also the Niantic Bay Boardwalk and Overlook to fruition. She and Andy brought their ideas to the East Lyme Board of Education (BOE) at the July 17, 2017 meeting. They asked that the structure remain as-is while they develop a plan to restore it as a planetarium. The BOE unanimously agreed to hold the room for the 2017-2018 school year.
In August of 2017, Diane contacted Spitz, Inc., the original vendor for the initial system, and scheduled a demonstration of the newest dome projection technology and opened the presentation to the public . Community interest was overwhelming. Three additional shows were added and over 110 people attended!
Also in August 2017, local newspaper the Day published an article that generated even more interest. As a result of the increased interest, an advisory committee was formed in September 2017. The committee was comprised of many community members with various areas of expertise. Over the course of the next year the committee developed a business plan that included a detailed budget and sustainability plan.
Representatives from the committee provided a status update to the BOE in April 2018. Moving forward, the committee worked with several volunteer nonprofit and business consultants to form an independent organization. The first step in the long process of applying for tax-exempt status began by incorporating through the State of Connecticut. STARS to STEM, Inc. was approved as a nonprofit organization on May 4, 2018 and the next year the federal government approved the application for 501(c)(3) charity status. STARS To STEM became an independently run and self-sustaining organization.
Planetarium programs commenced in fall 2018 with several stargazing sessions that used donated telescopes. By late spring, 2019, fundraising efforts began with a Launch Gala scheduled at a local country club. Also this June, information booths will be set up at several Farmer's Markets and at Celebrate East Lyme Day in July.
Many private citizens, educational organizations, and corporations have pledged their support of this endeavor. Once the planetarium is online again, programs will focus on educational activities, entertainment for communities, and training sessions for businesses and other non-profits.