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Skyview Elementary School students take a trip to space with mobile planetarium

The Poudre Learning Center

The Poudre Learning Center promotes interdisciplinary learning focused on the importance of history, science, economics, stewardship and aesthetics of the Poudre River and northeastern Colorado.

Learning center staff develop and offer educational programs aimed at reinforcing concepts presented in northern Colorado school curriculum.

For more information about the learning center, go to http://www.poudrelearningcenter.org.

About 20 Skyview Elementary School fourth-graders gasped when cosmic lights flicked into existence above their heads.

"I see stars," whispered students in the darkness of the STARLAB, a mobile planetarium that filled the Skyview library Wednesday.

Amy Nicholl, curriculum coordinator for the Poudre Learning Center, 8313 W. F St. in Greeley, took students on a special trip out of their classroom and into the night sky.

STARLAB brings space — at least an artificial version of it — to anyone willing to crawl inside. It's essentially a large, inflatable tent with a tunnel leading to a dome that measures a little larger than 15 feet across. A projector puts images of stars on the dome ceiling and walls to simulate the night sky.

Learning center staff often set up the STARLAB for monthly astronomy nights, but they also use it for school groups studying astronomy that visit the facility, Nicholl said.

"Space is one of those things that is a little tougher to do hands-on," said Teri Romshak, the school's media and technology specialist. "So this is one way we could really get (students) thinking and experience space up close."

Throughout the day Wednesday, all Skyview fourth-graders got a chance to crawl in for a look at the projected stars.

Nicholl, a retired Windsor-Severance Re-4 School District teacher, identified the stars with a laser pointer to direct students' attention. After she explained how light travels through space, she told students how ancient Romans and Greeks told stories about the constellations.

With each group, Nicholl explained the stories and named a few constellations — Ursa Major, Orion and Cassiopeia.

"I liked seeing how the big and littler dipper lined up," said fourth-grader Izabel Rico.

Nicholl then invited students to create stories of their own to explain the constellations. Students offered a variety of stories, telling tales about aliens, Harry Potter and more.

Fourth-grader Brooke-Lynn Abalos sat cross-legged around the edge of the dome, her head tilted back to look at the stars above.

"It was so cool," Abalos proclaimed after spending almost an hour learning about space in the planetarium.

In their time under the projected stars, students also learned about the North Star and navigational constellations. The projector moved the stars to demonstrate how stars appear to change their positions in the sky as Earth rotates.

"Unless you have an astronomy night at your school, it's hard to get kids out to actually see the stars and talk to them about where the constellations are and how to find things," Nicholl said.

When kids started asking questions about the numerous other constellations, Nicholl laughed and reminded the kids they sat only feet away from library books explaining many of the myths. Making that connection from hands-on learning to classroom study is the exact purpose of the roaming planetarium, Nicholl said.

"Science is the study of the world around you," she said. "If we can get kids fascinated with things from the stars and planets to down to blades of grass or how flowers are pollinated, then we're going to have them interested in the world around them and get them into the library to learn more."