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Whidbey GeoDome Project wants to change science education

Joe Menth navigates through the universe using a software program called UniView, which allows him to project the universe and seamlessly rotate around planets, stars and solar systems. He was in the Whidbey GeoDome at South Whidbey High School as part of a demonstration of next generation science education.  - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Joe Menth navigates through the universe using a software program called UniView, which allows him to project the universe and seamlessly rotate around planets, stars and solar systems. He was in the Whidbey GeoDome at South Whidbey High School as part of a demonstration of next generation science education.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

LANGLEY — Science classrooms may be rounder in the near future.

At least, that is if the Whidbey GeoDome Project has anything to say about the state of science education in Washington. The Langley-based group will have a role in shaping the way students from kindergarten to 12th grade learn about physics, biology, astronomy and chemistry.

And it could take place inside an igloo-shaped superscreen.

“We think the future of science education is visually based,” said Rick Ingrasci, the Whidbey GeoDome Project director.

“I feel like this is a Sputnik moment for the United States.”

The South Whidbey School District is in the process of focusing and changing its science education. Washington schools have aimed for courses that incorporated STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

At South Whidbey High School, one of the larger expressions of that cross-discipline education was the recently finished Admiralty Head Lighthouse lantern room, which was fabricated in three parts by Oak Harbor, Coupeville and South Whidbey high schools. The next may be this portable learning environment.

Leaders with the GeoDome Project envision both a grander and more subtle application for the multimedia immersion, where video, pictures, narration and music surround an audience with information.Michael Foley photo | An audience is captivated by the visualization of earth’s magnetosphere inside the Whidbey GeoDome. The Langley-based project aims to change science  education in Washington and may pilot its program with the South Whidbey School District.

“I look at it like a storytelling device,” Ingrasci said.

During a preview presentation at South Whidbey High School Monday night, the GeoDome took a packed crowd of 25 people on a 30-minute “guided tour of the universe.” The video began with a clips from the 1962 Worlds Fair in Seattle with narration about how science and the understanding of the universe has changed over time.

The curved, 360-degree screen went dark, then flashed a view of earth from space and highlighted the transition of science from earth-centered astronomy in the time of Ancient Greece to solar-centered with Copernicus and finally the magnitude of the universe with Hubble’s telescope.

As the brief history of astronomy is narrated, the view of earth shrinks and the viewpoint goes farther into space. The zoom-out technique gives a sense of the enormity of the universe and its dimensions, up is down as viewers look up from the floor or crane around from some of the floor-level seats.

The technology is all thanks to a software program called UniView, typically reserved for planetariums, at a cost of $25,000.

“Truly, this has never been done before,” said Joe Menth, the GeoDome Project creative director.

Once the software was purchased, Menth and the GeoDome team wrote the script and created the video. Menth is able to zoom and rotate the video with a joystick that looks like an Xbox controller.

Since April, the GeoDome has been at the Seattle Center. From Thursday to Sunday, groups can take tours at the Earth Portal. The video takes viewers to the extent of current understanding of dark matter and the rapid expansion of the universe, then zooms back in toward the Milky Way and finally back to earth. The narrator explains how ancient astronomers recognized and illustrated patterns such as circles and spirals, and that those patterns are seen in science at grand levels, such as the spiral of galaxies, and at minute levels, such as the circle of an eye’s iris.

That, Whidbey GeoDome’s directors said, is the kind of lesson which makes science relevant to a young learner.

“It gets the kids working to solve real problems to see science as a practice,” Ingrasci said.

The Whidbey GeoDome Project will present to teachers of the South Whidbey School District today. South Whidbey schools may pilot the GeoDome as part of its science curriculum, which has been the project’s goal since its creation in November.

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