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The Day, New London, Connecticut. Saturday, November 28, 1981
School’s planetarium an astronomical bargain
By Karen Markin
Day Staff Writer
EAST LYME – School officials weren’t after pie in the sky when they put a planetarium in East Lyme High School nearly 10 years ago.
Called “one of the best-kept secrets in East Lyme” by a school administrator, the planetarium was installed at low cost and is still extensively used for a variety of programs.
The planetarium’s capacities have been enhanced by the improvisations of Donald M. Bloom, a high school science teacher who operates the equipment there. Programs don’t consist solely of lessons on comets and constellations – the planetarium can meet the needs of most any class, from creative writing to history. One of Bloom’s shows for English classes depicts the short story “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe.
Students of all ages use the planetarium. In the past, night courses, adult education classes and programs for the elderly have been conducted there.
The planetarium was installed in 1972 when the high school addition was built. Voters chose between a planetarium and swimming pool, or a planetarium and another gymnasium, and chose the latter, Bloom said. He is convinced it was a good decision to have a planetarium in the plans.
“Considering what they paid for this thing and what it costs to operate it, they got quite a bargain,” he said in a recent interview at the planetarium.
“This was the best buy the town ever made,” he said. “When we put in the planetarium, it was really on a shoestring.”
Bloom said the machinery and controls cost $12,000 – and would now cost about $50,000. The room, with its dome-shaped ceiling and reclining seats, cost $15,000 to construct.
The chairs are from a planetarium in Niagara Falls that was being dismantled at the time the town was constructing its own. Bloom and John D. Hall, who was then the high school principal, rented a U-Haul truck and drove there, dismantled the chairs, and brought them to East Lyme. The chairs cost $15 each.
There are only two other planetariums in this part of the state, at Mystic Seaport Museum and Eastern Connecticut State College.
The high school offers astronomy classes, with a college curriculum tailored for high school students. They use the planetarium for laboratory work, not just for watching shows. Other science classes also utilize the planetarium, especially earth science classes.
But every student in the school system is likely to visit the planetarium for some kind of lesson at one point in his education. Kindergarten and elementary school students become acquainted with the stars and planets there, and junior high school children learn how the early explorers navigated. Even creative writing classes take advantage of the planetarium. Those students study the Greek and Indian myths about the constellations. Then, Bloom creates imaginary constellations in the planetarium and students make up their own stories about them. He uses a mirrored disco ball to create the star field for that lesson.
Bloom is also preparing a program about how the ancient civilizations in Mexico used astronomy. He went to Mexico this summer and visited the ruins of various cultures. The show can be used for world cultures and Spanish classes.
“That’s the kind of nonsense I play around with when I don’t have a class in here,” he said.
He has conducted programs for senior citizens in the planetarium.
“I showed a comet and said, “This is Haley’s comet. Last time it was here in 1910.”” He then told them it would be back in 1986, and he hoped they would all be around to see it.
An elderly man then said, “I saw it in 1910 – it wasn’t that exciting.”
There are myriad possibilities for programs at the planetarium, Bloom feels. They are basically done through the clever use of light bulbs, mirrors and projectors.
"You’re in a closed environment – you can create any illusion you want,” Bloom said.
“I am a great adapter,” he added; “I don’t say I’m creative. But if I go to a planetarium society meeting and see something, I’m pretty good at adapting it to our facility here.”