District 202 Board President Pat Savage-Williams and ETHS Alum Leonard Schaeffer cut the ribbon to celebrate the opening of the renovated planetarium. RoundTable photo

Evanston Township High School celebrated its newly renovated planetarium with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Oct. 16. The renovated planetarium, located in the east courtyard of the school, is light years beyond the original one built in 1968.

Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said, “It’s a great day to be a Wildkit. … We probably have the most state-of-the-art planetarium of any high school in America.” He said it has “state-of-the-art digital technology,” with “make-your-heart-throb surround sound,” and the “quality of an Imax theatre.” Besides the ability to explore all of the constellations, he said it can be used to explore the Sistine Chapel, or to tour the human body. “It is equipped to handle unbelievable amounts of software.  … But first and foremost it’s a planetarium.”

“We learn best when we are excited about and interested in our learning,” Dr. Witherspoon said. “If you want to talk about something that excites learning, it’s this planetarium.”

Andy Miner, an astronomy teacher at ETHS who worked on developing the planetarium, told the RoundTable that the new planetarium can do everything the old planetarium could do, but in addition it can “leave the Earth” and give a view of the Earth from space; it can zoom in on any area of the Earth; it can provide a perspective of what the galaxy would look like from another planet or from an asteroid, or a star; and it can give a view of the galaxy as it was 100,000 years ago or as it will be 100,000 years in the future.

Gion Matthias Schelbert, an ETHS astronomy teacher who was instrumental in the project from its inception five years ago, said Vicky Kalogera, a professor of physics and astronomy at Northwestern University, helped “form the vision of what we can do with this facility.” He said the planetarium is designed not only to explore astronomy and astrophysics, but also to embrace physics, biology, humanities, aviation, computer programming, computer science, gaming, virtual reality and other topics.

“In January, we’ll be getting anatomy software, and will be able to explore the skeleton, the cardiovascular system, organs, chambers of the heart, the lungs,” he told the RoundTable.

He said with “Unity” software, the planetarium can create a 3D environment. As an example he said students could take a virtual tour of Notre Dame and zoom in on buttresses and other architectural features.

Geoscience students will be able to study the Earth inside and out with live data updates from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The planetarium can add a flight simulation program.

When asked how this will differ from using a flat screen TV, he said “It’s immersion. It takes the student into the experience. It can land on a planet. It can make it an immersion experience.”

He envisions that the planetarium can be used as a teaching tool in many different disciplines, that it can be used to teach District 65 students and youth in community programs.

Guest speaker Michelle Larson, president of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, said, “We think of a planetarium anywhere as a canvas of wonder. It is a place where you can look at the stars, it is a place where you can explore the universe, but it is a canvas for all kinds of exploration. … This is a resource for your entire school.”

Dr. Witherspoon introduced the guest of honor Leonard Schaeffer, who donated $500,000 toward the project. Mr. Schaeffer “has made all this possible,” said Dr. Witherspoon. The balance of the funds needed for the project was raised by the ETHS Educational Foundation.

Mr. Schaeffer, ETHS class of 1963 and the current chairman and chief executive officer of WellPoint, said ETHS “changed my life. … If I could help out, I would like to do that. … I’m very pleased to be with you today… It makes a huge difference for young people.”