Not Your Typical Summer Camp: Students Build Own Planetarium

Dorinda Belcher (back, far right) and Doug Avon (back, second from left) and some of the kids attending summer school at Wayne M. Henkle Middle School pose in front of the school planetarium they constructed as part of the summer program’s Space Exploration theme.


The Enterprise

Be honest, when you think of summer school, you think of spending a few weeks sitting in a blazing-hot classroom, bored out of your mind. Well, the summer school program at Henkle Middle School is more like summer camp. Fun, hands-on learning projects and programs are going on all over inside and outside of the school, not to mention the added excitement of the firefighting task force using the school as a base camp. But the main attraction is the student built functional planetarium.

“This year’s summer school theme is Space Exploration,” said Dorinda Belcher, the head of extracurricular activities at Stevenson Intermediate School. “I wanted something big that would be exciting for all the kids to participate in, so I came up with the idea toward the end of the school year and began working on some of the panels with the fifth grade class. Then we got the high school kids in on the actual construction with some (a lot) of engineering help from Doug Avon,” a math teacher in the White Salmon Valley School District.

The outside of the planetarium looks like an igloo at first glance. When you get close to it you see it’s made out of different thicknesses of cardboard held together by box studs and zip ties. There are two openings in the igloo. One has a fan strapped in to allow the inside of the planetarium to remain cool while the projection system is on. The other is circular entrance, which no matter what size of person you are, you have to crawl through.

Once inside there is a projector pointed at a rounded fish-eye mirror that reflects the images onto the the the smooth rounded walls of the planetarium.

“We have mostly been showing videos of the solar system to kids that come in: for older kids we let them play ‘No Man’s Sky,’ which is a planet exploration game and they seem to really enjoy it,” said Trevor Avon, a summer school volunteer.

“Getting the the reflection and the image quality right is a constant experiment for us,” said Brandon Moore, another summer school volunteer.

When asked why not just buy or rent a planetarium, similar to the portable one at OMSI, Belcher said, “Most schools would do that for just a day, but those can cost upwards of $1,500. We wanted something for the whole summer and that the whole summer school could have a hand in. We only spent about $400 to build this and it was a fun experience for the summer school kids.”

The planetarium is truly impressive and the students and summer school staff are working on way to store it somewhere so it can be accessible during the school year. There also has been talks about coordinating with the Huckleberry Festival and having the planetarium as a feature for kids to participate.

“I would really like to invite the community in to see it and am hoping to get to give them a chance to check it out,” said Belcher.

The public can view the planetarium at Henkle Middle School, 480 NW Loop Rd., on July 28, from 6-8 p.m.

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