PORT ANGELES — When 2009 Port Angeles High School graduate Justin Gailey, 21, returned to his alma mater Thursday, he brought the stars with him in the back of his car.
Gailey, a senior physics and astronomy major at the University of Washington, arrived in Port Angeles with a kit that assembles into a digital planetarium with room for 35 — in less than a half-hour.
On Thursday, a group of 20 students from teacher John Henry’s introductory science class gathered around the balloon-tent planetarium, set up in the foyer of the school’s auditorium, and filled out questionnaires asking them about their interest in science.
From the outside, the big black-fabric, igloo-shaped room looks like a children’s bounce room, complete with an air blower to keep the dome inflated.
Students kicked off their shoes, then ducked through the opening and into outer space.
Inside the dome, the lining shut out daylight, while the white interior sparkled with stars and planets.
Students were taken through an interactive tour of the solar system, then viewed the Milky Way galaxy and beyond into the larger universe.
The entire trip was led by Gailey using a computer and a suitcase-sized “digital starlab” that not only show can the night’s sky from the Earth’s point of view, but move the entire audience to any point in time and space the pilot wants to take them.
It also displays movies, videos and digital animations.
On Oct. 30, the University of Washington announced its mobile planetarium, funded through a NASA grant, was ready for “prime time.”
Port Angeles High School is only the second school the university has visited with its new mobile digital planetarium.
The plan is for the planetarium to visit at least one high school per week, Gailey said.
“We want to go to underfunded and under-represented schools in the Seattle area,” he said.
The university’s astronomy department also operates a digital planetarium on UW’s Seattle campus, where programs are offered for K-12 students, college students and members of the public.
However, the expense of bringing several classrooms of students to the planetarium can be a barrier for more geographically distant or financially struggling districts.
Gailey also discussed recent changes in astronomy such as the reclassification of Pluto, once thought to be a planet.
Once scientists got a better look with modern equipment, they discovered that the distant space rock isn’t what early researchers expected.
“It’s basically a big comet,” Gailey said.
Students exited the show discussing the science they saw and the idea of having science come to them for digital hands-on experiences.
“If we had more things like this with science, more kids would be interested. It’s easier for us to get involved,” said freshman Katelynn Jangula, 15.
Freshman Maria Soule, 14, said she was impressed with the star show and how the educational content was communicated.
“It was really good. It was presented in a way you could understand it,” Maria said.
At the end of the class, students were given a brief exam that asked them to rank six astronomical bodies in order of size: our solar system, the sun, Jupiter, the Andromeda Galaxy, a galaxy cluster and a nebula.
More classes were scheduled to visit the mobile planetarium today.
Reporter Arwyn Rice can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5070, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.