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ECLIPSE 2024: St. Davids students take a trip to the moon

More than 400 students were able to experience the upcoming solar eclipse and other space-related topics with Astronomy in Action's Ryan Marciniak

For two days this week St. Davids students, up to 60 at a time, filed into a giant bubble set up in the centre of the school’s gym to board a rocket ship, fly over the Arctic, travel to the moon and experience the total solar eclipse.

Leading them through their journey was astrophysicist Ryan Marciniak, who accompanied the portable planetarium from Toronto-based Astronomy in Action.

Using open-source three-dimensional images captured by spacecraft and planetariums, Marciniak wowed the students with an immersive 360-degree projection accompanied by appropriate sounds from space and nature. 

“It’s like virtual reality without the VR goggles,” Marciniak told The Local as a projection of the moon seemed to get closer and closer to him. “It’s amazing that we can do this. We have imagery from all around the moon all the way around. We’re flying around the moon like we’re astronauts.”

That particular imagery, he added, was from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, sent up by NASA in 2009.

From there the enthusiastic astronomer, who has guested as an expert on CBC, CTV, History Channel and other outlets, brought himself back to earth, hovering over an old-growth forest and flying over the Arctic to experience the change in sea ice.

Inviting Marciniak into the school was the idea of Grade 6 teacher Josh Bateson.

“Part of the Grade 6 science curriculum is the solar system,” explained Bateson. “I was online looking for resources to help, especially with this amazing once-in-a-lifetime eclipse coming up, and I found this. I took it to Carl (Principal Glauser) because I thought it would be great for the whole school.”

With everyone from Kindergarten to Grade 8 filing through over the two days, Marciniak was prepared with age-appropriate experiences and lessons geared toward the Ontario science curriculum.

“We let the kids take ownership of the show,” said Marciniak. “They decide where we go and what we see. I start things out, but usually about a third of the way into it they get comfortable enough to ask me to take them to things they want to see. That’s when you know the real magic is going to happen.”

With the solar eclipse above Niagara just about a month away, Marciniak says excitement for the Astronomy in Action experience is reaching a peak. 

“It’s an amazing opportunity to talk about space,” he agreed. “Good schools like St. Davids are having us in to talk about the eclipse so students can be prepared for what they are going to see and also for how best to enjoy it. And we can do it in a safe way where you’re not staring into the sun.”

With that, Marciniak touched one of the dozens of icons on his tablet. The sun appeared above Marciniak’s head and slowly the moon came into view. The planetarium became increasingly darker until all that could be seen was the ‘ring of fire’ surrounding the moon. 

Grade 3 teacher Jennifer Crawford brought her students into the planetarium Tuesday morning. 

“They loved it,” Crawford raved. “They got to see all the planets, the stars, they talked about the solar eclipse that was coming up, what a lunar eclipse is, they had all their questions answered, it was amazing.”

Crawford collected questions from her students on Monday to prepare for the experience. She listed off a few of them to The Local.

“Is the moon hot?” 

“What is a black hole?” 

“How do they name planets?”

“How are stars made?”

“Are aliens real?”

“Ryan read through all of their questions and answered them all,” added Crawford. “He was great with the kids, kept them engaged and intrigued through the whole session.”

With some of the older kids, Marciniak got into some more imaginary scenarios to hold their attention and entertain them a bit. 

“Sometimes, to calm them down, I’ll say ‘let’s blow up the earth’,” he laughed, pressing another icon to load an animation of the planet blowing up into fiery pieces. 

Marciniak and Astronomy in Action have three portable planetariums that they travel with across the province. The Orangeville resident, who laments that he never got to visit Toronto’s McLaughlin Planetarium before it closed, thinks of it as a way to bring that type of experience just about anywhere. 

The $40,000 bubble, he says, takes about five minutes to fully inflate. Once it’s up, he can set up another $25,000 worth of tech in the centre of the dome. That includes a fish-eye lens, his Samsung tablet, a projector, a small computer that holds all of the images, a microphone and a Bose speaker for crystal-clear audio. 

“You want to see the Northern Lights?” asked Marciniak. He presses another icon and sure enough, he’s standing among the Aurora Borealis. “I have pages and pages and pages of things I can do, with pretty much no limitations.”

Besides schools, Astronomy in Action also participates in several different events. They were part of the Canadian National Exhibition last summer, where over 18 days more than 14,000 people came through the dome for short 10-minute experiences. 

Marciniak will be back in the Niagara Region for the five days leading up to the solar eclipse, offering free experiences of the astronomical phenomenon at a Niagara Parks festival. 

Bateson, who had originally hoped that St. Davids Public School could have opened the planetarium for the students’ family members to visit after school both days, was extremely happy to hear about those plans. 

“It’s definitely something that everyone should go and see,” Bateson said, “For sure I am going to bring Jane (his daughter, a Grade 8 student at Crossroads) to see this that week.”

In addition to being a reporter for The Local, Mike Balsom is also the host of The Source on YourTV Niagara. On April 8 he will be hosting YourTV’s live coverage of the total eclipse beginning at 2:00 p.m. from Niagara Falls. 

Other ECLIPSE 2024 articles from the NOTL Local: 

Niagara Police and emergency services ready for biggest crowds ever

Provincial task force has been key in preparing for the eclipse

Whether through special glasses or a colander, watch it safely

The science, mathematics and history behind it

Mike Balsom

About the Author: Mike Balsom

With a background in radio and television, Mike Balsom has been covering news and events across the Niagara Region for more than 35 years
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