In the early 1990s, students at Booker T. Washington Senior High School in Overtown studied the planets, stars and constellations from a vantage point available at only a handful of schools around the country.
Seated in a 40-foot domed planetarium known as the “Space Place,” students in earth and space science courses were able to observe the movements of the stars firsthand. Elementary and middle school kids from throughout Miami-Dade traveled to the school for “star shows” put on by Booker T. students.
“It really was state of the art for its time,’’ said Vice Principal Kevin Lawrence.
Budget cuts and staff changes at the school left the planetarium in disrepair for nearly a decade.
Now, motivated in part by the launch of FIU’s Education Effect initiative at the school, Miami-Dade County Public Schools has agreed to refurbish the 25-year-old planetarium at a cost of more than $250,000.
“This has truly been a labor of love for the past three years,’’ said Chris Carranza, an administrative director with the school district who oversees science, math, career and technical education. “The partnership with FIU – Education Effect 2.0 – was the impetus for the school district to put some skin in the game, invest in the planetarium and provide the curriculum to support it.”
The Education Effect is a university community school partnership between M-DCPS and FIU that began in 2011 at Miami Northwestern Senior High School in Liberty City. With a $1 million investment from the Lennar Foundation, the partnership was recently expanded to include Booker T., one of Miami-Dade County’s oldest schools in the historic African-American community of Overtown.
The planetarium, tentatively scheduled to open in September, will be the centerpiece for an astronomy academy at the school, as well as an enhanced engineering academy and courses in biology, physics and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects.
The new high definition digital projector, with state-of-the-art sound and lighting, will “literally take students to the surface of Mars or even the bottom of the ocean,’’ said FIU Professor James Webb, an astronomer and physicist who oversees FIU’s on-campus observatory, the Stocker AstroScience Center.
Working with the district, Webb is helping to develop the astronomy curriculum and community outreach programs for the planetarium, the only one of its kind in Miami-Dade County schools. (One other high school, Hialeah-Miami Lakes, has a smaller planetarium built in the 70s but it, too, has fallen into disrepair and is not currently being used.)
FIU has already begun offering dual enrollment astronomy courses at the school and helped launch an astronomy club in the spring. Dual enrollment classes, which allow students to earn college credit while still in high school, will also be offered in engineering.
“This partnership will leverage FIU’s intellectual and research capital to support student and teacher achievement at Booker T.,’’ said Irma Becerra-Fernandez, FIU’s Vice President for Engagement. “These career-focused academies will provide students with the knowledge and skills for success in higher education and STEM careers.’’
Additional plans for the planetarium include educational programs for elementary and middle school students, professional development for teachers and community outreach programs such as “star-gazing parties” and other special events, said Donnie Hale, director of The Education Effect at Booker T.
“This is going to be an incredible resource for Booker T., as well as the Overtown community and the entire district,’’ Hale said.
The existing equipment at the planetarium, including the control panel and analog projector, will be preserved for students in a display case at the school. Plans include a mural outside the planetarium and, potentially, a small gift shop with souvenirs to produce revenue for ongoing maintenance of the site, Carranza said.
“Our goal is to leverage the entire infrastructure to make connections with the community and our students,’’ he said. “We want to excite students about science and the career possibilities that go along with that. The sky is literally the limit.’’
To learn more about The Education Effect, visit engagement.fiu.edu or call (305) 348-7752.