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The planetarium has fallen short of its potential

An+inside+view+of+the+planetarium.
An inside view of the planetarium.

An inside view of the planetarium.

Reda Majid

Reda Majid

An inside view of the planetarium.

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When looking up at the night sky in Northern Virginia, one is met with a clear, dark and, unfortunately, starless abyss. In this area, stars are barely visible due to the light pollution that is produced in highly populated areas, but Hayfield offers a largely unknown amenity that allows students to view the stars without difficulty. The planetarium provides students with the ability to experience the astronomical phenomena that frequently occur in space but only few are fortunate to witness.

“Because it hasn’t been used so much as a planetarium, I think students are less aware of it,” astronomy teacher Patricia Allison said. “In 2008, when the county stopped supporting having the elementary schools come to the planetarium, it really ceased functioning.”

The planetarium opened its doors in 1971, with the main purpose of furthering the education of elementary school students in preparation for their upcoming science Standards of Learning (SOL). The planetarium is centered around a Spitz A-4 projector, and, along with various other special effect projectors, it can simulate specific astronomical phenomena such as solar and lunar eclipses, phases of the moon, certain types of lighting and auroras.

“The planetarium is really a great resource to have,” Allison said. “I can run programs to explain how stars were used for navigation, and when you change latitudes, why your vision of stars changes, which was really useful when it was used to bring in elementary school students to prepare them for the SOL questions that were coming up about moon phases and different things about the universe around us.”

As one of only three high schools in Fairfax County with planetariums accessible to students, the other two being Falls Church High School and TC Williams High School, Hayfield provides a unique and educational experience that not many schools have the ability to offer to their students. Although it hasn’t been used in abundance to assist in the education of students, various groups and clubs have had the ability to witness the magnificent programs and simulations the planetarium can display.

“The planetarium is open as a classroom during the astronomy classes, and if you make arrangements, I can run planetarium programs during my free periods when I am not teaching a class,” Allison said. “I do try to make it open to the GEMS (Girls Excelling in Math and Science) program, and I have had other groups and other classes come in. Also, there is an astronomy club, but this year it hasn’t really coalesced because the kids that are interested in joining are also doing other activities, so we haven’t been able to put that together, but the students can stop by any time after school if they want.”

With astronomy–held in the planetarium–as a common senior year class, it is rare to see underclassmen get any use out of the space. Regardless of the reason behind so few knowing about the wonders the planetarium has to offer, there are a number of students who do recognize the benefits it adds to Hayfield as a school.

“The planetarium is a hidden star here at Hayfield,” junior Nazanin Azimi said. “It is an extremely underrated class that offers a universe of knowledge.”

As so few students have been fortunate enough to visit the planetarium, Allison encourages students to take astronomy and explore the wonders experienced while experiencing the Hayfield planetarium.
“If students are interested, the planetarium is open, and I can run programs if they tell me what they want to see,” Allison said. “Hopefully it will be used more by the school in the future.”

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