The stars are aglow inside Montgomery elementary school

Education foundation buys district a portable planetarium

By: Jake Uitti
   MONTGOMERY — "It’s the Cadillac of portable planetariums."
   That’s how Erin Peacock, the township school district’s director of sciences, described the tent-like learning tool donated by the Montgomery Township Education Foundation.
   The $20,000 Portable Digital Planetarium, which can fit more than 25 people under its dark blue dome roof, was unveiled at Orchard Hill Elementary School on Monday to the oohs and aahs of students and teachers alike.
   It didn’t seem like anything special when an Orchard Hill second-grade class filed into the school’s cafetorium and saw what looked like a 15-square-foot blue gym bag. But as the class was seated around their tables, they saw the bag inflate to a large igloo shape about 15 feet tall and 40 feet in circumference.
   The class was then taken through the zipper door and seated in a circle underneath the planetarium roof. They gazed up at the "night sky" above them projected onto the dome by a digital projector with a fisheye lens.
   The projector, an average-sized computer that can be hooked up to the Internet to download updates and new programs of solar systems, is easily portable, operated by a remote control and made by Digitalis, a company that specializes in portable planetariums, Ms. Peacock said.
   "The great thing about this is that we can use it for all grades," she said. "Astronomy and Space Science begins at the second grade with the earth, moon and sun system and then is infused throughout the other grades more intensely," she said. "This planetarium is absolutely amazing."
   The township’s Education Foundation, a nonprofit group that assists the schools with donations outside the regular budget, raised the money for the planetarium through a car raffle, individual donations and corporate sponsorships from Johnson & Johnson and Patriot Media, foundation Secretary Richard Smith said.
   Previously, the district had been borrowing a similar portable planetarium from Raritan Valley Community College. "Now, the district can use it whenever they want," Mr. Smith said.
   Wade Martin, treasurer of the foundation, said of the new acquisition, "Instead of looking at a book, the kids can look at this."
   The Education Foundation, which was responsible for raising money for the new high school football field, will hold a fundraising event April 1 at the high school, Mr. Martin said.
   "It will be the biggest community party the township has seen," he said. "We hope to raise more money for the schools for equipment like this."