C of I planetarium receives public outreach grant

The College of Idaho’s Whittenberger Planetarium offers visitors the chance to become engulfed by planets, stars, galaxies and exploration of the final frontier. But what if you could get a similar experience in an elementary, junior high, or even high school classroom?

That’s where the Starlab comes into play.

And thanks to a recent $5,000 NASA Idaho Space Grant Consortium (ISGC) grant, C of I planetarium director Amy Truksa will be holding a workshop in June 2016 to teach 25 local school teachers how to use the portable planetarium.

“It’s a phenomenal tool,” Truksa said. “Crawling into a planetarium at your own school is so unique compared to anything else students might be doing.”

The Starlab is an inflatable planetarium that can be rented from the College. Once it is inflated, people crawl through a tunnel, which opens up into a dome. Inside the dome, a projector displays the night sky, much like the ceiling of a planetarium. By changing the cylinders on the projector, the Starlab can also display Greek mythological constellations, Native American constellations, the organelles of a cell, wind currents, ocean currents and more. That makes the Starlab applicable to a variety of classes, whether it is exploring mythology for language arts classes, talking about different cultures and the way they perceive the world for social studies, or walking into a cell for biology.

“It’s a fantastically novel way to teach science in the public schools, especially at the elementary levels,” Truksa said. “They don’t have labs for biology and chemistry classes. It’s really, really difficult to have hands-on science.”

Abigail St. George, a fourth grade teacher at Marsing Elementary, remembers when she crawled into the Starlab while attending Vallivue High School in Caldwell. For her, the Starlab made the solar system come to life. After going into teaching, she tracked down the C of I Starlab to implement into her own classroom.

“I remember being in the Starlab and thinking how amazing it was to be able to feel like I was experiencing space,” St. George said. “I want my students to be able to really experience the solar system as we learn about it. I want them to be able to look up into sky at night and be able to show their parents the different things they see.”

Training teachers to use the Starlab enhances the mission of the Whittenberger Planetarium, which was built specifically to provide educational outreach to the community in the sciences, Truksa said. When the Starlab was first purchased in the 1990s, a similar workshop was held to teach educators how to use it. But over time, as those teachers moved on or retired, the Starlab has received less use. After deciding it was time to put together another workshop, Truksa drafted and submitted her grant proposal to train elementary school teachers to teach astronomy and use the portable Starlab equipment.

While the final schedule for the summer workshop isn’t set, Truksa is planning on holding the Starlab training the week after local schools get out in June. The workshop can be taken for experience or for continuing education credits toward teacher recertification requirements.

Teachers interested in participating in the workshop can contact Truksa at [email protected].

The College of Idaho has a 125-year-old legacy of excellence. The C of I is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, four NFL players and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom.  For more information, visit



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