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North Hills High School planetarium converted to digital theater

| Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015, 5:07 p.m.

North Hills High School is set to open a digital immersion theater, one of few in the state to offer students and the community an opportunity to experience video across a full dome.

The theater is scheduled to open Friday and will be available to students at the high school and throughout the district and community. The district converted its planetarium to a digital immersion theater over the summer, installing a digital projector and LED, or light-emitting diode, lighting.

The school board in June approved funding for the project. The final cost was about $90,000, including labor, according to the district.

The theater is a teaching tool for all subjects, not just astronomy and science, said organizer Sue Batson, who teaches chemistry and astronomy at the high school. The theater has 40 movable seats.

“The possibilities are really only limited by the imagination of the teachers involved,” she said. “I'm hoping before I leave here to involve everybody, every department in the school.”

A biology lesson could include a simulation of cell activity projected onto the dome, making students feel as if they're inside the cell. Art students can get an up-close view of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel. Foreign language classes could take a virtual tour down a street in Spain or Germany, listening to natives chat.

Students will be able to feel like they are sitting among the stars, while learning about them.

“When you're sitting in there, it's like you're actually standing in the field in the sky,” said Heather Campbell, who's in 11th grade, and president of the school's astronomy club.

“It's amazing clarity,” she said. “Before, we could only look at the stars.”

The astronomy club is planning more school-sponsored events for the space and plans to continue a tradition of hosting parties around astronomical events.

A ribbon cutting and grand opening showings of “Two Small Pieces of Glass” are planned for Friday, along with a double feature showing of “Flight Adventure” on Sept. 9, 11 and 15. There are showings each month, free and open to the public.

The high school's astronomy club will exhibit moon rock samples and provide hands-on activities about planets on Friday. No reservations are required for the grand opening shows.

Batson led the digital theater initiative and plans to retire at the end of the school year. The planetarium was 45 years old and was functional, but there seemed to be more possibilities for it, she said.

“I wanted to leave something that was a little bit more useful and more available for a younger teacher to manage,” he said.

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