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Wood Acres Elementary School

Students Become Stargazers at Wood Acres Elementary School

Planetarium volunteer Eloise Keary leads students on the "Walk of the Planets," to teach them the figurative distance of each planet from the sun.
Planetarium volunteer Eloise Keary leads students on the "Walk of the Planets," to teach them the figurative distance of each planet from the sun. (By Andrea Borie)

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By Julie Rasicot
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sitting in the dark, several first-graders at Wood Acres Elementary School gazed at the constellations arrayed above them, listening as parent Erika Jorgensen explained the Greek myth about the warriors depicted in the stars of the Gemini constellation.

"One of the twins was immortal, and one was mortal," she said. "And they were in a lot of battles long, long ago in Greek times."

The constellation's outline was clearly lighted on the 14-foot-high metal dome of the Bethesda school's planetarium, the only planetarium in a county school.

Since 1982, Wood Acres students have learned about astronomy by studying the night sky in the planetarium and through lessons in its classroom. The beige dome is suspended by chains from the ceiling over a carpeted circular pit in the retrofitted classroom.

Through a program run by trained parent volunteers at Wood Acres, students in first through fifth grades visit the planetarium six times a year for 45-minute lessons. The program for kindergartners is more condensed; students attend one lesson each week for six weeks, said parent Eloise Keary, who is in charge of scheduling and training for the PTA's planetarium committee.

During a class Friday, Jorgensen and John Adams, a parent and NASA aerospace engineer, taught the first-graders about the solar system before gathering the youngsters under the dome. Projecting colorful images of planets on a large screen, Adams talked about their characteristics.

"Do planets shine?" he asked. "Planets don't shine like stars, but they will reflect light. That's why you can see them at night."

After about 30 minutes of discussion, Adams and Jorgensen moved the students under the dome and turned out the lights. Using a red laser pointer, Adams showed the students what they might see in the sky on a July night.

"The three brightest stars that you see over your head are called the summer triangle," Adams said.

The planetarium, which was originally at the former Brookmont Elementary School in Bethesda, was the brainchild of Osceola Sexton, a science specialist who taught in 23 schools, according to a history of the planetarium written in 2005.

After the planetarium was installed at Brookmont in 1973, Sexton trained teachers in its use, and students from local schools came for lessons. But since Sexton frequently had to travel to other schools to teach, the planetarium often sat unused. Parent volunteer Barbara Muller began teaching classes in 1974, the official start of the parent volunteer program, and later taught astronomy classes full time, according to the history.

When Brookmont was closed in 1982, its students and the planetarium moved to Wood Acres.


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