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As Elgin Observatory turns 100, U-46 ramps up space curriculum
By Kerry Lester | Daily Herald Staff

Former Elgin High School student Hal Getzelman, who now works with NASA, visited the U-46 observatory last fall with director Gary Kutina, left, and former director Don Tuttle, center.

 

Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

The Elgin National Watch Co. observatory on Watch Street was built in 1910, deeded to Elgin Area School District U-46 in 1960 and was made a local landmark in 1992. It's turning 100 years old.

 

Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

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Published: 2/19/2010 12:01 AM

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Kids might be more apt to play with video games than rockets these days, but one of Elgin Area School District U-46's more unusual programs is seeking to change that.

The district's observatory and planetarium - which will kick off its 100th anniversary celebrations Saturday - sees approximately 150 student visitors every school day.

That number could grow in the coming years, with an increased focus on space in the district's curriculum, according to new math and science Director Jennifer McDonnell.

"You can't replace doing science by reading about science," McDonnell said.

The observatory, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in February, was originally built to observe and record precise time for the Elgin National Watch factory.

In 1959, with gauging time via telescope was made obsolete by atomic clocks, the factory gave the observatory to U-46. It added on a planetarium in 1963. The planetarium was the first of its kind in any Illinois public school district, and one of just a few in schools across the nation.

During the space race and the Cold War, longtime planetarium director and Elgin Community College Professor Don Tuttle inspired many U-46 students to keep their eyes to the sky - including Hal Getzelman, who now works as NASA's lead capsule communicator for the International Space Station.

Graduating from Elgin High in 1972, Getzelman told the Daily Herald this fall that the space race of the 1960s and the Cold War naturally drew many students, including himself, to astronomy.

Today, current planetarium Director Peggy Hernandez conceded, fewer students show an interest in space on their own.

It's up to the school district, through planetarium and observatory visits, to spark that interest.

This spring, McDonnell said, a new earth and space curriculum for eighth-graders will be introduced. Among the many lessons include hands-on labs about the landscape and gravitational pull of various planets.

McDonnell said that the district will be looking for grants to rehab the observatory, so students and others in the community can better tour the entire building.

"It was the first thing Superintendent (Jose Torres) told me about when I interviewed here," she said. "He said, 'We have a planetarium! It's awesome.' I mean, really, how many districts have that?"

From noon to 3 p.m. Saturday, the public is invited to an open house at the observatory, 312 Watch St. Hernandez said volunteers from the Elgin Historical Society will give guided tours of the building, including up to the second floor to see the old telescope.

The event includes 12:15 p.m., 1:15 p.m., and 2:15 p.m. sky shows, and a 1 p.m. cutting of an observatory "birthday cake." For details and to reserve a sky show spot, call (847) 888-5000 x 5312.