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Discovering new worlds with Wellington's planetarium

21 October 2019
This year there’s a new addition to the Wellington science labs – the planetarium! Mr Lloyd, Head of Physics, is responsible for introducing this rather impressive piece of educational technology to our campus, and he’s only just started to unlock its full potential. First things first, for those who haven’t tried it yet, what can pupils expect when they step into the new Wellington planetarium? What makes it special?
Mr Lloyd:
When most people hear the word planetarium, they immediately think of a big dome that projects rotating images of the stars – interesting but not that interesting, right? However, technology has moved on quite a way since the early planetarium forerunners, so now we have a piece of equipment that’s small enough to fit inside a classroom (it’s around 4.5 meters in diameter and 2.7 metres high) and is much more versatile and engaging. Thanks to video processing tools, we can take software intended for VR setups (Virtual Reality) and project highly immersive environments across the dome’s interior, all without the need for any headgear.What can pupils expect when they walk in? They can expect to step into entirely different worlds.
Can you give us an example of what the planetarium is capable of?
Mr Lloyd:
It’s early days still, so Wellington pupils have mostly been using the planetarium as a space simulator. Thanks to some very impressive programmes that we’ve been experimenting with, pupils can actually travel to any part of Earth to see how the night sky and stars look, with a very high degree of accuracy. They can go much farther too, as literally any planet or celestial body throughout known space is a potential destination. If they want to see what Earth looks like from the Moon, no problem. If they want to check out the view from Saturn’s rings, it’s merely seconds away. It’s an incredible tool for firing pupils’ collective imagination and curiosity about physics and astrophysics in class, as they can simply pick a point in the universe that interests them and travel there instantly.
And are there more interactive elements to these kinds of programmes?
Mr Lloyd:
Absolutely.  With the planetarium we can look inwards as well as outwards. Another suite of programmes lets pupils explore our own planet in a variety of exciting ways. They can venture into the heart of a volcano, or submerge to the bottom of the sea, in order to get a close-up look at conditions in some of Earth’s less hospitable places! This is already proving to be a great way to let pupils explore the naturally-occurring phenomena like tsunamis and earthquakes, as well as things like climate change. They can adjust different setting to map the path and progress of these forces, which is a great way to understand their impact more clearly.
You said that it’s still early days for the planetarium. What do you have in store for the near future?
Mr Lloyd:
Naturally, we’re very excited about the potential applications of the planetarium in the science department, but given the versatility of the software available, the possibilities to use it in other subjects are equally compelling. Clearly there’s a strong overlap with geography but already we’re envisaging pupils being able to explore the trenches of World War One, take a walk around the Eiffel Tower, see the realities of conditions during the American Civil War close up, and even jump into the middle of a live recreation of a Viking battle (produced by National Geographic and hundreds of medieval warfare enthusiasts!). Already that’s four really exciting ways to bring different elements of French, history and English literature lessons to life by taking pupils out of their textbooks and plonking them right in the heart of the action.Our director of wellbeing is also considering using the planetarium for meditation. We can project videos of calming scenes of natural beauty combined with similarly calming music, which should produce a very immersive environment that’s conducive to deep thoughts and relaxation. It’s this kind of out-of-the-box (but inside-the-dome) thinking that makes the planetarium a truly exciting prospect for any teacher.Right now it’s about developing these materials into solid, useful lessons. I’m really enjoying working with my colleagues in science and other departments to do just that.
How have the pupils reacted to their planetarium lessons so far?
Mr Lloyd:
With lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’, like you would expect! It’s pretty much been a universal smash hit with pupils who have tried it so far, across a wide range of year groups. Plenty of them have been asking when they can come back for another session. To me, that’s very gratifying, because we’re just starting to get to grips with what this equipment can do. I’m looking forward to seeing their faces when we get into the more ambitious programmes that are currently being tested.
What do you think makes the planetarium such a special educational experience for pupils?
Mr Lloyd:
It comes down to immersion. This is not just putting on a video – it’s a much more engaging learning experience because it puts pupils literally at the centre of things. They are up and about, actively looking and walking around to discover more and hunt out the things that genuinely interest them. It paints a much more vivid picture for them, but without stunting their imagination. On the contrary, I think it helps feed their imaginations, and will hopefully make them want to learn more about the new scientific, historical, geographical, literary and literal worlds that they explore inside the planetarium.
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