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The NPR Ed team is taking a look at classroom icons for our Tools of the Trade series - the slide rule, the Bunsen burner and, today, the planetarium in high schools. There are actually hundreds of planetariums around the country left over from America's Space Race days with the Russians. NPR's Elissa Nadworny visited one planetarium at a high school in Virginia.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Outside Thomas Jefferson High School, it's just after noon on a bright sunny day. But inside Lee Ann Hennig's classroom, the sun is sliding towards the horizon.
LEE ANN HENNIG: Now, let me get your eyes get used to the dark.
NADWORNY: Students lean back in plush red seats, looking up. Hennig turns the knob, and a few bright stars emerge above.
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HENNIG: Over in the east - look in the east. There's something just coming up, yeah?
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: It's right there.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Ah yes, right there.
NADWORNY: This high school astronomy class is learning constellations. There's no clouds, no light pollution, just an amazing array of bright stars projected from a large ball covered in tiny pinholes.
HENNIG: Jasper, you want to try taking us on a little guided tour of what we can see so far?
NADWORNY: Junior Jasper Barnett takes the red laser pointer.
JASPER BARNETT: We've got the big dipper and the rest of Ursa Major. And then - let's see. Where's Cassiopeia?
HENNIG: Cassiopeia's up there 'cause that's where - 'cause it's opposite the Big Dipper.
HENNIG: Yep, yep.
BARNETT: ...I think, yeah.
SAHAJ SHARDA: It's like the sky meeting a movie theater.
NADWORNY: That's Jasper's classmate, Sahaj Sharda.
SHARDA: It's not real, but you're seeing the same stars that have fascinated philosophers and thinkers for millennia. And it's a fascinating field.
NADWORNY: To explain how this school and hundreds like it got a planetarium in the first place, we have to go back in time to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away - 1957.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Today, a new moon is in the sky - a 23-inch metal sphere placed in orbit by a Russian rocket.
NADWORNY: That new moon - Sputnik. Launched by the Russians, it was the first man-made satellite to circle Earth. It was the start of the Space Race, and America was behind.
ROB WEBB: People were scared.
NADWORNY: That's Rob Webb, a high school planetarium director in Pennsylvania. Even Congress was freaked out by Sputnik, so President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act. The law gave money to schools to boost education in science, math and foreign languages.
WEBB So the idea is, let's educate our children to become scientists and engineers who can build the next Sputnik.
NADWORNY: One option - build a planetarium. More than 300 schools did. The planetarium in Virginia and the one that Webb runs in Lancaster were built in 1967 using those federal funds. Some have survived, but many have since closed. The machines are old, expensive, and Webb says not many new teachers know how to run them.
WEBB: Money just isn't being spent on them. Yeah, it's just not much of a priority anymore.
NADWORNY: But the schools that persist - they do it for a reason.
WEBB: We never know who's going to go into that planetarium and be inspired.
NADWORNY: To become the next great physicist or the next great astronomer. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Washington.
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