Inspiring Success Stories
Former East Lyme students share how the ELHS planetarium helped inspire them to pursue STEM careers.
STARS to STEM is proud to recognize East Lyme alumni who pursued careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Graduates who continued their studies in astronomy and other space sciences agreed to share their inspiring success stories. These former East Lyme students possess a common passion in space exploration and an unlimited curiosity about the possibilities that lie beyond our planet Earth.
An interview with Dr. Erin Boettcher, East Lyme High School Class of 2008
Jack McDonald, East Lyme High School Class of 2017, is guest speaker at STARS to STEM 2019 Launch Gala
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.
Jack McDonald, ELHS Class of 2017
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.