News & Events

Aerodynamically, the bumble bee shouldn't be able to fly, but the bumble bee doesn't know it so it goes on flying anyway.
Mary Kay Ash

Photos were taken at public events beginning with the Launch Gala held on June 19, 2019. Summer events include Celebrate East Lyme Day, Lions' Club Arts and Crafts Show, and Farmers' Markets. News articles were written by STARS to STEM members or about STARS to STEM members. Web links to other news sources are listed below the articles.

Launch Gala Attendees

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Summer 2019 Events

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April 2021

Reprinted from The Post Road Review monthly regional magazine

STARS to STEM Receives Donation from the Mitchell Trust

Banner of The Post Road Review

The Mitchell Trust, LLC, which has supported many local causes, has made a donation to STARS to STEM, Inc., a local non-profit corporation which is dedicated to the renovation of the existing planetarium space at East Lyme High School to create a community and regional educational asset.

Currently the space (which has not been operational since 2013) requires restoration and a technology upgrade.

Thanks to community support, private and corporate donations, a third of the cost of a new projector has been accumulated. In addition, grant awards are being sought for the remaining balance. No Board of Education funds or tax dollars will be used.

Donations can be made by mail to STARS to STEM, Inc., P.O. Box 616, Niantic, CT. 06357. Interested parties with questions can email Diane Swan, President of STARS to STEM, Inc., at For more information, visit online at

Michele Snitkin, STARS to STEM member

The Stars are Ours
by Michele Snitkin, STARS to STEM, Inc. Member

Published February 2021 in Niantic Neighbors magazine

Welcome to the first monthly installment of celestial news provided by STARS to STEM, Inc., a local non-profit promoting the restoration of the planetarium at East Lyme High School.

Many people are unaware that there was such a facility - a dedicated room in the high school - up until 2013. With the increasing importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), it is vital to provide as much stimulus to interest in these fields as possible.

One of the most powerful gateways to careers in the sciences is an early fascination with the heavens. Since ancient times the eyes of men and women have been drawn to the skies especially at night. Even today we can look at the stars with naked eyes and find wonder. However, curiosity leads us to seek to order and make sense of what we see. A first grader’s trip to a planetarium provides a roadmap, an astronomy student’s studies may lead to a career choice.

In the upcoming months you will find interesting, inspiring, and informative commentary in this space written by Dr. Leslie F. Brown, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Connecticut College, New London, and a Board member of STARS to STEM. She will guide us in how truly to make the stars our own.

Fundraising for the restoration and technology upgrade of the planetarium space in the high school is ongoing and will depend on private/corporate donations, the work of volunteers, and grant awards. No Board of Education funds or tax dollars will be used for this regional educational asset for all ages.

Donations can be made by mail to: STARS to STEM, Inc. P.O. Box 616, Niantic, CT. 06357. Interested parties with questions can email Diane Swan, President, at or visit online at

STARS to STEM President Diane Swan and her family
featured in January 2021 Niantic Neighbors magazine

For all non-profits, reaching out to potential benefactors is critical to the success of an organization. Public relations efforts bring awareness to the overall goal, vision, and mission of the enterprise and support the organization in reaching its goals. With today’s modern technology, information is shared through web sites, social media venues, crowd-sourcing fundraisers, and promotional videos. Not to be forgotten are the tried-and-true measures of print media that can reach many in the community through traditional means.

Such a magazine is Niantic Neighbors, published by Best Version Media. BVM distributes millions of publications every year throughout the United States and Canada. Renowned as one of the most productive and developing companies in traditional print media, the periodical features local families on the front of every cover with an in-depth article to “share their unique story with the community.” A very fitting and noteworthy family featured in the January 2021 edition was STARS to STEM President Diane Swan, her husband Robert, children Lydia and Vincent, and most loyal pet dog, Barley.

The article details the early lives of Diane and her husband as well as her family’s background. It describes the motivating events that led her to a career in teaching with a special interest in science. As a student of East Lyme Schools, Diane was mesmerized by the amazing presentations conducted at the high school’s planetarium, so much so that she wrote letters to NASA and immersed herself in the study of astronomy. Currently a teacher at Niantic Center School, Diane shares her passion with her students. Fittingly, she spearheads a group of community members in STARS to STEM, a non-profit organization she established, with a mission to restore and upgrade the East Lyme High School's existing planetarium space into a 21st century teaching and learning marvel.

Diane believes that leaving a legacy is a big responsibility. “Together we can make a difference in the footprint we leave in this town…for future generations to enjoy.”

Karen Urgitis/Advisor

October 17, 2020

Dear Mrs. Diane Swan,

On behalf of the Chelsea Groton Foundation, I am pleased to inform you that your STARS to STEM, Inc Grant Request has been approved.

In these difficult times, it is paramount for us to first address immediate critical needs such as healthcare, food and shelter and fund those organizations providing direct assistance. However, we are also deeply committed to all of our area non-profits who are facing financial disruption. Therefore, in order to fund even more non-profits, the Chelsea Groton Foundation has made the unprecedented decision to double the usual amount of total funds granted in a calendar year. We are proud to have supported 136 organizations totaling nearly $1 Million to date this year.

Please see the attached document for details and instructions for receiving your funds.

Thank you,

Chelsea Groton Foundation Secretary
Chelsea Groton Bank
904 Poquonnock Road, Groton, CT 06340

Board of Education Ad Hoc Committee - Zoom Meeting with Stars To Stem, Inc.

January 26, 2021 @ 6PM


Board of Ed: :Jeffrey Newton, Eric Bauman, Leigh Gianakos, Chris Lund, Maryanna Stevens

Stars To Stem: Karen Urgitis, Linda Raffa, Mark Princevalle

Jeff Newton opened meeting with self intros of participants and reviewing of statement of purpose for meeting, as was put in tonight’s agenda - holding planetarium room for use by Stars to Stem.

Eric Bauman started discussion by saying that while he felt this was “holistically” a good idea, he was looking for a more detailed update on the progress of the organization. He said he felt a little “disconnect” in explanations and understanding surrounding the topic of the Planetarium. He wanted to know more about where Stars To Stem was in a planning timeline and the financial progress in the achievement of the goals of that timeline.

Karen Urgitis reported that grants, in kind and private donations, along with the pursuit of corporate funding would be assisting in this first phase of planning. She reported we have about another $80,000 of this part left. Due to Covid, Stars To Stem has not been able to have major fundraising events. Linda Raffa added she felt that the “grassroots” type of support Stars To Stem has been receiving from donation jars in business establishments, FaceBook page and Website donations, along with personal donors just mailing in checks was a good sign for continued future support.

Eric Bauman questioned our future timeline and programming expenses.Karen thought it would be around $ 80, 000 yearly. That would most likely be covered by grants, corporate sponsors and fees.

Mr. Bauman asked what timeline were we looking at and he was under the impression we would be charging East Lyme schools to use Planetarium once it’s up and running.

Ms. Urgitis stated that although we plan to be a regional asset, we would probably start slowly with just East Lyme schools, at no charge, and then begin programming for students throughout the region. She felt this was covered at a past meeting.

Mr. Newton asked if there were anymore questions. He stated that if all on committee agreed, he would bring up holding the Planetarium room at the February 8th meeting. After discussion of how long they would hold the room, Mr. Newton said if no objections, he would use the last letter of commitment for one year and just insert the new dates.

Mr Bauman asked that we continue with document updates, along with an updated business plan. Perhaps we could meet again in another six months to check on progression. He also suggested that we might get in touch with Dave Putnum of Parks & Rec for advice and input on how The Miracle League accomplished their goal.

Meeting was adjourned at 6:36 pm.

Linda Raffa, Secretary/Treasurer

Stars To Stem, Inc

P O Box 616 ,

Niantic, CT 06357

STARS To STEM launches official fundraising efforts - June 19, 2019

On June 19th, Wednesday evening, supporters of STARS to STEM officially launched the organization's fundraising efforts at Langley's Restaurant in Waterford, Connecticut. Guest speaker, Jack McDonald, shared his experiences as a student in East Lyme's schools and how those experiences helped to shape his interest in astronomy to pursue a career in the field. Below is the speech that he presented to the captivated audience:

Hello and welcome. I’m Jack McDonald. I graduated East Lyme High School in 2017 and I am currently going to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida for Astronomy and Astrophysics. I was actually in Mrs. Swan’s first and second grade class in Niantic Center School. She asked me to speak tonight about my experiences in the East Lyme Public School system and in college.

In Mrs. Swan’s second grade class I remember we were assigned to do a presentation on a book of our choice. Naturally, my choice was a pocket handbook to the solar system. I carried that thing everywhere and would try to memorize the facts of each planet. That was only the beginning of my affliction of outer space.

When I was in 3rd grade, the International Astronomical Union voted to demote Pluto to a dwarf planet. A children’s book was written called, “Poor Pluto” and my mom read it to my 3rd grade class. Little did I know, I would later learn the specifics of the Pluto demotion from one of my college professors who was one of the IAU members who voted Pluto a dwarf planet.

In 8th grade our science class had a month-long space unit that I was looking forward to for a year. At the end of the unit we were tasked with creating a presentation of about something space related in a group. While some of my classmates were pairing up and choosing topics such as the moon, the sun, the space program, or poor Pluto, I chose to work alone, and I tackled the topic of the universe. I focused on the evolution of the universe which is highly debated. I explained a few theories about the end of the universe in my presentation which ended up being double the average time of the other presentations. Most of the class fell asleep and the teacher gave me an A plus with the comment, “It felt like a college lecture.”

Unfortunately, when I got to the high school, they had just taken down the planetarium. I had biology class with Mr. Harfenist in the planetarium room where the reclining seats were replaced with desks and chairs. The next year I took the astronomy class with Mr. Harfenist in the same room. By then, both he and I accepted the fact that the school wasn’t planning on revamping the planetarium. It was a sad reality, but I was going to do everything I could to give back to the school system that gave me so much.

I decided to develop an hour-long astronomy program for the town’s 3rd graders as a WISE project my senior year. For those of you that do not know about this unique class at the high school, a WISE project is a capstone class where a student develops their own program of their choice. They can either get an internship, do a project around the school, or do community service. The teacher of that class, Mrs. Gianakis, is supportive no matter what you do and is one of the nicest ladies I have met. With her and Mr. Harfenists help I made an interactive, informative presentation. It included an explanation of the moon phases with a flashlight and a moon globe.

Next, I tried to explain the seasons to the 3rd graders, but it seemed that is was a little too complicated for them. Then I went into a slideshow of the solar system, starting at the sun and ending with the dwarf planet Pluto. The last 10 minutes of the program was reserved for questions. I will never forget a particular question I got. So, these presentations I did were right before the Christmas break and I gave out candy canes to the last class that came. This little girl, while eating her candy cane asked me, “Is there Santa on Jupiter?”

Naturally, I paused to try to think up a valid answer. Mr. Harfenist gave me a look saying, “be careful”.

So, I said to the girl, and the class itself, that “Santa lives on the north pole of Earth, however, every planet has a north pole, therefore, every planet can have its own Santa. But so far scientists haven’t found any evidence of life on other planets and why would Santa exist on another planet if there are no kids to bring presents to?”

Satisfied that the answer was too complicated to be understood and that it still left the imagination to tackle the question, I moved on to the next question. The next question was one that I received from each class, “Why is the ceiling a dome?”

That answer was always, “Well it used to be a planetarium, where I could’ve showed you the sky how it will be any night of any year.” I always winced a little bit giving that answer; I always hoped I could’ve given a planetarium show to them.

I later graduated high school and went to college. In college I started my astronomy classes, and one of which was on the history of astronomy. In this class the professor brought us to a planetarium in the Museum of Arts and Sciences just down the road in Daytona. The planetarium technician was actually a former student of that very same professor and they ran the show together. In the show they used the planetarium to visualize the evolution of the constellations over time and how the precession of earth has moved the north star over millions of years. Later the show brought us to exoplanets and other stars, and we got to see just how far away everything is.

If anything has ever helped me visualize my area of study, that show was it. I wish everyone could have the opportunity to sit through one of those shows and fully understand the magnitude of the sizes of space. Objects can range from the size of Manhattan to double the radius of the solar system. Outer space is one of those concepts that is hard to understand because there are no valid parallels to draw to real world experience. A planetarium allows for a parallel to be drawn, it brings together your mind and imagination to the scale and wonders of space.

I will give you guys an example: in the last semester I did a report on magnetars. Long story short, these objects are of similar mass of the sun, but have a radius of 12 kilometers. The only denser object in the universe is a black hole. These objects spin rapidly, completing a rotation every 5 seconds or so. Because of this they have strong magnetic fields that are over a million times the strength of the Sun’s field. To put this into perspective, if a magnetar was placed where the moon is, the iron would be ripped out of your blood while you are on Earth. These objects are hard to visualize, as no one has directly taken a picture of them. They are incredibly small and very far away. We can only imagine what they look like and the environment they exist in.

This is what a planetarium could do, it would allow for anything in the universe to be brought before your eyes. In the very near future, the richest of the rich will be paying for tickets to space. I don’t think I, or anyone I personally know will be able to afford a ticket. But why pay millions of dollars to sit in a tin can around earth when you could pay the price of a movie ticket to sit in a comfortable seat and watch the universe come to life before you, going from solar system to solar system, galaxy to galaxy? A planetarium show can include anything from an exploration for life in the universe to a mission to the black holes of the universe. You could think of it as East Lyme’s very own space program.

Thank you.

IRS Notification - March 5, 2019

We’re pleased to tell you we determined you are exempt from federal income tax under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 501(c)(3). Donors can deduct contributions they make to you under IRC Section 170 (Public Charity Status). You are also qualified to receive tax deductible bequests, devices, transfers, or gifts under Section 2055, 2106, or 2522.

Effective Date of Exemption: May 4, 2018 (the date we were officially incorporated in the State of Connecticut).

Our application was approved without any need for additional documentation or corrections. STARS To STEM, Inc. is very thankful for the professional advice received from many dedicated community members. While it seemed like a long process to get to where we are today, our team confidently surmounted each hurdle which strengthened our determination to upgrade the East Lyme Planetarium.

We are setting up a PayPal account to facilitate online donations via our web site. Donations via check can be sent to:

STARS To STEM, Inc.PO Box 616Niantic, CT 06357

We will aggressively seek grant awards to assist with fundraising and will continue to establish partnerships with regional organizations. A series of upcoming events is planned and exciting news about expert connections is forthcoming. Stay tuned!

Karen Urgitis, Vice President

STARS to STEM, Inc. moves forward with SCORE

September 11, 2018

The Board of Directors and members of the Advisory Committee convened a special meeting that was facilitated by Mr. Bob Potter, a volunteer from the local chapter of SCORE. SCORE provides free, ongoing mentoring, and shares real-world advice and know-how*. Bob’s extensive professional experiences include: marketing, communications, new product development with major media companies, and working with a variety of nonprofits.

The focus of our session was to discuss Best Practices that ensure success for newly-formed nonprofits. While our group gained a lot of new and useful information, we also were able to ask very pertinent questions that were directly related to our corporation’s vision, mission, and goal. The importance of success metrics, measurement tools, setting priorities per quarter, and sustainability were among the topics discussed.

STARS to STEM, Inc. looks forward to an ongoing relationship with Bob through SCORE. We are very grateful to have SCORE work with us toward success in all our endeavors.

Please be sure to visit SCORE at *

Karen Urgitis, Vice President, STARS to STEM, Inc.

East Lyme High School logo.  Image of viking

If you can imagine it, the planetarium can show it

Reprinted from East Lyme High School Viking Saga - October 20, 2017

by Chris Cicchiello

As of this past summer, Niantic Center School teacher Diane Swan, along with a team of over 60 local community members has dedicated countless hours to restoring the planetarium in East Lyme High School. Although the school planned to turn the dome-shaped room into a multi-purpose room, Ms. Swan was determined to preserve the room and revitalize the planetarium.

“I can remember being a first grader and seeing Mr. Bloom showing us the constellations with his blue pointer,” said Ms. Swan. “It was a powerful experience that led me to get my Masters in Science and down the path that I went.”

The last time ELHS had a fully operational planetarium was 2013. That year, the servicing contract became too expensive for the grossly outdated operating system technology, leading to it being deconstructed. The planetarium chairs were added to the auditorium; however as for the machine itself, the whereabouts of it are less clear. Over the summer, Ms. Swan created a presentation for the public to see the benefits of a planetarium, and more importantly, showcase the technology. Between the meetings, 60 individuals took the next step, willing to contribute their time and energy towards the cause.

As of now, the goal is to organize funds through donations through nonprofits like the Niantic Rotary or Lions Club, but Ms. Swan also hopes to procure funds through fundraisers.

“If the money goes through non-profits, it will be earmarked for the planetarium only. Otherwise if I were to raise say $200,000, the Board of Education could move those funds into transportation if they saw a greater need in that area” said Ms. Swan.

So far she is not able to reach out to any foundations because she must first get her business plan approved by the Board of Education. But this should not be a problem for Ms. Swan as she has a highly qualified partner assisting her in the business aspect: Mr. Andy Pappas. Although he may not be well known, his work precedes his name. He is largely responsible for establishing the Children’s Museum and the Niantic Bay Boardwalk.

She has also garnered support from the likes of Ed Jutila and the incumbent State Representative Holly Cheeseman.

But arguably, even more valuable to Ms. Swan’s purpose is the steady support from Superintendent Jeff Newton and Principal Michael Susi.

With their help, they discovered that the only school to have a planetarium nearby is Teacher’s Memorial School, which is only a sixth grade institution. But even they only just put theirs back online. Upon Ms. Swan’s request, Mr. Newton arranged for a tour of the school in the coming months in order for the three of them to see how the refurbishments have come along.

But the planetarium is only part of the Ms. Swan’s vision.

“The planetarium will serve as a prelude for what I really want to do, which is integrate regional STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) programming into the school,” said Ms. Swan.

“Say a group of adult’s want to get their boater’s license. Once they do, they could bring their knowledge back to the planetarium and look for constellations in the night sky and critical stars for navigation. Or for health and anatomy, students could use it to delve into the human body down to the bones, tissues and even cells,”

According to Ms. Swan, this program would be completely open to the public in addition to the ELHS community at large. And, it would be fully self-sufficient like the high school pool, requiring no tax dollars. She hopes that the planetarium’s unlimited applications can be used to bring together the East Lyme community and the district as a whole.

“It would be a travesty for future generations not to see this, especially when ELHS alumni are crediting the planetarium for the reason they decided to go into their specific field of study,” concluded Ms. Swan.