With the closure of the London Planetarium, an inflatable mobile version could be the next best thing, as Dennis Ashton reports
It was a cold, bright day in Sheffield yet the children were in darkness looking at the stars. The planetarium was in school. With the closure of the London Planetarium, teachers wanting to give their pupils a star experience will have to look elsewhere. Astronomy guru Sir Patrick Moore said the decision was "most regrettable".
"I have already had enquiries from people asking: if they can't go to the London Planetarium, where can they go," he said. A letter from a 13-year-old girl at St Marylebone Church of England School, a central London girls' comprehensive, protested that "the Planetarium can do things that science lessons struggle to provide".
Stardome is one of 20 mobile planetaria listed by the British Association of Planetaria. These inflatable domes can be taken to schools, and used to give star shows to support the Earth and beyond section of the national curriculum.
In the sports hall of Southey Green Junior School, Stardome transports Year 5 pupils through the Solar System to distant stars. Using dramatic Nasa images, Stardome presenter Andrew Green first takes his space cadets on a journey to the planets. Then it's time for the centrepiece of the show, a full-dome projection of the constellations.
At first, not many stars are visible as Andrew recreates an urban night sky, awash with light. Then, to delighted gasps from the audience, the city lights are extinguished to reveal a perfect night sky, ablaze with stars.
Andrew guides them to star patterns, significant stars, nebulae and planets. Anticipating their questions, he uses the night sky to reveal the wonders of the cosmos. When the lights return, the enthusiastic response of the children bursts through in their questions.
Back in the classroom, pupils appreciate that the apparent movement of the Sun and stars is really caused by the rotation of Earth. They talk of star colours: "blue stars are hot, red stars are dying"; and constellation shapes: "I'm going to look for Orion tonight". And they marvel at the number of moons now known to orbit giant planets: "a lot more than it says in books".
Pam Gibson, the teacher responsible for Stardome's annual visit, has no doubts about the value of the planetarium for this inner city school.
"Space is an abstract topic and therefore difficult for children to grasp the concept," she says. "Stardome brings it closer."
In addition to travelling domes which can be set up in schools, the British Association of Planetaria counts a further 30 purpose-built star theatres among its members. These fixed planetaria use sophisticated projection systems and usually offer an exhibition area alongside the main auditorium.
Typical of these is the South Downs Planetarium in Sussex, where Ann Mills explained the way they work with visiting schools: "The planetarium creates a wow factor and we receive wonderful letters back from the children."
A planetarium can also offer children the bonus of meeting a working scientist in the ideal setting. One expert presenter summarised the special nature of a star theatre: "Although the planetarium has a projector for its heart, its spirit is astronomy. And its life comes from the audience and astronomer sharing together a memorable encounter with the universe."
Dennis Ashton is director of Star Centre, Sheffield Hallam University STAR TIPS
Visiting a planetarium
* Visit the website of the British Association of Planetaria to find one for your region: www.planetarium.org.uk
* Look at the websites of local operators for specific information and contact details
* Decide whether to take pupils to a fixed planetarium or invite a mobile dome to come into your school.
* Decide whether you want the visit as a stimulus at the start of the topic or at the end to summarise learning.
The mobile option
* Discuss the programme with the presenter to ensure the content meets your requirements.
* Find out how many pupils can be accommodated in each show. Mobile domes vary in size but are usually sufficient for a class at a time.
* Arrange the schedule of shows to fit in with your school timetable.
* Book a large room for the day, eg the school hall or gym.
* Find out what follow-up resources are on offer.
* Costs are typically around pound;300 per day (pound;2 per pupil).
* If possible, visit the planetarium yourself before taking pupils.
* Discuss the star-show content with the presenters to ensure it meets your needs.
* Find out how the exhibition area can be used to enhance the visit.
* Arrange a timetable for each group of pupils.
* Pre-booking is essential.
* Costs vary from free entrance to about pound;5.95 per child.