Reach for the stars

Students get needed boost to update aging planetarium

PHOTO PROVIDED From left are students Cameron Crossley, LJ Boone and science teacher Tara Yokitis at the planetarium’s aging control panel.

“It’s really exciting and we are so thankful,” said Williamsport Area High School astronomy teacher Tara Yokitis of the financial support given to seniors LJ Boone and Cameron Crossley by the Williamsport Area School District Education Foundation. The students have been working hard on their senior project to update the aging planetarium with desperately needed 21st century technology.

In 1972, three years after Neil Armstrong took one small step for man on the surface of the moon, the brand new Williamsport Area High School on the hill opened its doors to a student population eager to learn in a modern physical environment. The planetarium experience was well-suited to a community turned on to the study of the stars, which now seemed closer to Earth than ever before.

But with the inevitable passage of time the twinkle in the planetarium’s heavens dimmed, and costly updates were hard to come by.

So what to do? Well, if it involves technology, just ask a couple of very talented teenagers.

Boone and Crossley, with one small step of their own, now are poised to take one giant leap for Williamsport Area High School.

Replacing the analog system with digital equipment, along with other updates, would be an expensive proposition costing as much as $300,000 if Spitz, the original contractor, would be involved, said Yokitis. The original cost of the planetarium was about $250,000, she added.

The students described their planning process in steps. First, they identified the problem as old analog equipment needing to be replaced by digital hardware for the projection system.

Yokitis half-joked that the first problem was actually preventing the control panel from catching fire, with old wiring spilling out of the back of the panel like limp spaghetti. Other wiring is dry-rotted and brittle, the teacher noted. The work of all that original wiring eventually can be managed by one iPad mini, Boone pointed out.

The seniors did research and also reached out to Dr. Richard Erickson at the Detwiler Planetarium at Lycoming College to determine a solution.

Last, they decided what materials would be needed and what kind of budget would be required, estimating their job could be completed for about $10,000.

Yokitis then reached out to the Williamsport Area School District Education Foundation to apply for a teacher mini-grant of $1500. A private donor stepped forward with an additional $2,000 and the project had liftoff.

With the initial funds, Boone and Crossley purchased a prototype mirror for $50 while they waited for the $700 permanent reflector they needed from New Zealand for the final installation.

“It’s a very special mirror,” Yokitis said.

Most recently an additional $6,500 for the project have been granted from the First Community Foundation Partnership of Pennsylvania through Educational Improvement Tax Credit donations received from First National Bank of PA and Woodlands Bank.

Electrical work provided by school district electrician Brian Klock helps to move the project along with the addition of a new lighting system and electrical outlets.

Boone emphasized how much he is learning from Klock as he does his work, illustrating that providing an education at Williamsport Area High School is not just about the teaching staff. Watching him do his electrical work, said Boone, “has shown me a lot and gives me a passion for it.”

Boone and Crossley anticipate the project will be up and running by the end of March.

The old system will be kept “for the sake of nostalgia” said Yokitis, and students will be asked to compare the old system to the new while they enjoy a crisp and beautiful view of the night sky thanks to the hard work of Boone and Crossley. The students also envision cross-disciplinary uses of the projection system in the planetarium setting.

Next year, the two will head to college, with stellar resumes already shining. Boone will study electrical engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology. Crossley said that while he enjoys the planetarium project he likes computer work more. He will attend Penn College to study Information Technology.