Julie Lutz Hipkins
For 47 years, Frederick County Public Schools students have experienced the wonders of the galaxy at the Earth Space and Science Lab (ESSL) by journeying through the glow-in-the-dark hallway and gazing at the stars in the planetarium. But this fall, the ESSL launched to a bigger and better space.
Built right across the parking lot from the previous ESSL in Lincoln Elementary School, the new building houses a larger planetarium, quiz corners, Chesapeake Bay Watershed aquariums, and state-of-the-art geology, meteorology, and oceanography labs.
ESSL directors Mark Bowman and Jeffrey Grills, recognizing Frederick’s growing student population, have been working to relocate the facility for seven years.
“We work with over 17,000 students and over 650 teachers each year,” Bowman says. “With the size of our facility and our program, we knew it’d be nice to have a larger facility to accommodate [them].”
Bowman and Grills set up a “Spaceship Earth Fund” with the Community Foundation of Frederick County and were able to raise more than $1 million for the project. The donations contributed to modernizing the ESSL with new technologies—such as digital quiz monitors in the hallways—and creating a scenic interior with an indoor freshwater pond.
“Everything is bigger and grander. It gives us a lot more options to expand in the future,” says Chris Horne, elementary science curriculum specialist for the school system.
The new Ausherman Planetarium—named after major donors Marvin and Lisa Ausherman—is, in fact, “bigger and grander” than its predecessor. The new 5.1 surround-sound planetarium seats 80 visitors in reclining chairs, and its 35-foot dome screen mimics a 360-degree panoramic sky to create an “immersion theater” experience.
However, it’s not just the astronomy labs that are grander than the original 1962 building—the interactive oceanography and geology laboratories are light years ahead in modernization, too.
Deemed the “Blue Room” and the “Brown Room,” respectively, the oceanography and geology classrooms boast murals painted by Frederick County schoolteachers, themed labs with aquariums featuring local marine life, and tabletops made of native granite. Third-graders in the oceanography lab can literally capture the life in the Chesapeake Bay when they explore the touch tank filled with starfish, sea urchins, horseshoe crabs, turtles, and crayfish. Fifth-grade geology students can examine rocks and minerals in the “cave.”
“This is a ‘doing’ place,” Bowman says. “We tell our kids to bring their five learning tools—their senses. The more senses they put to work, the better the learning and teaching experiences will be.”
As for the future of the upgraded ESSL, Horne says its inaugural year will be one of transition. In upcoming summers and school years, he hopes to add programs and even use the building for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) camps.
“This really is a new era,” Horne says. “Sometimes, when you get a new space like this, new opportunities arise. This will be an exciting year for us.”
From November through March, the public is invited to the Ausherman Planetarium for evening shows such as “Wonders of the Universe,” “Mystery of the Christmas Star,” and “Saturn: Jewel of the Heavens.” For more information, visit http://essl.sites.fcps.org.