Since September, Southampton High School students have had the opportunity to learn about astronomy with a state-of-the-art planetarium right inside their own school — and now the community is invited to come see it as well.
A series of four Community Science Nights hosted by the Southampton High School science department kicks off this Friday with a ribbon cutting ceremony for the refurbished Shinnecock Multimedia Planetarium. The night will include demonstrations of what the planetarium's new projector can do, and include hand-on activities for children, teens and adults.
The planetarium is named for the Shinnecock Indian Nation, which donated the funds for the construction of the facility and for the original projector, according to Ryan Munkwitz, the high school's astronomy teacher. He said the planetarium was originally built around 1973 with a Spitz 512 star projector.
The new projector and recent renovation were funded by taxpayers as part of a larger bond referendum approved by voters to expand school buildings and bring them up to date.
While the original projector was an optical-mechanical starball, the new device is all digital, and can do much more than just show the stars.
"Comparing that to this — it's a whole 'nother ballgame," Munkwitz said during a recent interview at the planetarium, as he sat behind the control panel of the new machine, a Konica Minolta Super Mediaglobe-II.
"I can leave the Earth, and fly to the edge of the universe," he said, while demonstrating the projector.
The projector gives a sense of just how small the Earth is, as it zooms out to show the solar system, the Milky Way, a cluster of galaxies and beyond.
"Until you have something like this," Munkwitz said of the new projector, "it is just an abstract idea, which can now become concrete."
"This is really powerful for kids," he added. "I wish I had this when I was in school."
Munkwitz currently has one class of students taking a year-long astronomy course. He said he is hoping the initial group of students with be inspired and spread the word of just how easy it can be to grasp astronomy.
The course just examines the solar system, so there is room for additional courses to be developed to reach further out into the universe.
In addition to astronomy, there are a number of other educational uses for the projector, Munkwitz said. For example, he said he would like to see courses crafted in computer graphics, animation and digital photography and video. These are the kind of courses that, coupled with the technology, will help fulfill the school district's goal of making kids college and career ready, he said.
He has already had inquiries from other teachers who want to bring their classes into the planetarium, he said, including a Latin teacher wanting students to learn about the constellations and mythology.
The projector allows Munkwitz to put on live shows of the solar system, stars and universe — as well as preproduced shows, which can serve as an introduction to astronomy for students interested in enrolling in the course.
"I'm looking into maybe opening it to the community," he said, so friends and family members can see what Southampton High School students are learning and learn something themselves.
The projector came preloaded with a few educational films, and Munkwitz said there are many more films that can be purchased — the same films shown in world-renowned museums — demonstrating everything from how spaceflight affects human anatomy on the microlevel to how the climate and atmosphere operate.
Community Science Night is Friday from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Shinnecock Multimedia Planetarium at Southampton High School. All are welcome and admission is free.