Taking Education to the Stars

Facility Name: Frederick County Public Schools Earth and Space Science Laboratory
Location: Frederick, Md.
Facility Type: School district-owned and operated science lab and planetarium
Construction Budget: $3.08 million
Size: 10,625 square feet
Start Date: May 2008
Completion Date: August 2009
Owner: Frederick County Public Schools
Architect: Proffitt and Associates Architects of Frederick, Md.
General Contractor: Excel Contractors of Williamsport, Md.

Picture this: A group of wide-eyed fifth graders settle into plush auditorium seats in a dimly lit, dome-shaped room. Their eyes, at first transfixed upon neon purple and green constellations and star maps that cover the lower walls, quickly dart to the dome overhead as a voice booms across the audio system announcing the start of the program. The ceiling lights up, sound reverberates, and students “ooh” and “ahh” on a visual trip through the galaxy.
What you are imagining is not a field trip to a city museum, but rather a visit to Frederick County Public School’s Earth and Space Science Laboratory, located on the campus of Lincoln Elementary School in Frederick, Md.
The school district-owned ESSL serves over 17,000 public school students and 650 teachers per year, largely from Frederick County. The planetarium and science lab interactive museum is used by another 2,000 private and home-schooled students each year, and is open to the general population, including for adult programs, year round.
The students experience a treat for the mind and the senses. They explore aquariums filled with native marine and freshwater life and examine the science of meteorology through a real-time weather station. The students will investigate renewable energy resources such as solar and geothermal power, and delve into the earth’s crust, studying precious gems by way of mineral testing experiments and a geographic wall.
In an hour-and-a-half, they will learn more about the solar system and celestial bodies then they ever thought possible.
Completed last August, the ESSL replaced a smaller, 3,000-square-foot school science museum located on the same site. ESSL directors Mark Bowman and Jeff Grills also managed that science center, working with about 10,000 students a year in a considerably smaller building that had been built in 1962.
“The ESSL project originally started off as a renovation,” says Bowman. “As the school district got into planning and preparations, they discovered the old building lacked proper fire prevention and handicapped accessibility features. A cost analysis showed that a standalone building was more cost effective to build then a renovation of the existing lab and planetarium.”
The new facility has room for an entire life sciences section and provides for the expansion of the earth sciences and astronomy exhibits. The crown jewel of the ESSL, Bowman says, is the 1,300-square-foot domed planetarium, which features a GOTO Chronos Hybrid fiber-optic planetarium projector — the industry standard for 15-30 meter domes — surround sound speakers, and seating for 80 participants.
Building and Design
From the outset of the design process, Proffitt and Associates Architects worked with the school district to integrate building architecture with science curriculum.
“When the district approached us, they were really interested in looking at energy efficiency, looking at smart uses of resources, and creating top-notch programming for students and visitors,” says the project’s architect Kori Perdum.
Inside the ESSL, a viewing window shows some of the mechanical components of the building’s 30-well geothermal heat pump, and a display explains how the system uses the earth’s energy to warm and cool the building. The same is true for the science lab’s 75 solar panels, which in addition to supplying 12.1 kilowatts of the building’s energy, use interactive models to show how they work and how much power they generate.
“Incorporating and coordinating all those items into the project was challenging, but it was also really rewarding to see the center come together at the end and see the kids using all the different technology and different displays,” Perdum says.
With only a handful of similar-sized projects nationwide, Perdum and her colleagues had little to base their design on.
“One of the most unique items for us, and something that you only get to design once in a lifetime for most people, was the planetarium,” Perdum says. “There really aren’t a whole lot of planetariums around the country, and there aren’t a whole lot in public schools. In fact, there weren’t a whole lot of other buildings that had many of the science lab’s same elements.”
Much of the ESSL’s interior displays came from the creativity of the co-directors, who decided what kind of exhibits they wanted to include.
Jodi Peterson, executive director of public affairs for the National Science Teachers Association, agrees that school-owned planetariums are few and far between.
“I would venture to say that it’s not very common in school districts to have these types of facilities,” Peterson says. “Instead, what you’ll often find is science teachers or administrators partnering with museums or institutions in the area, but actually having one on a school campus is very rare.”
Green Science
The ESSL produces about 8 percent of its own electricity through its solar panels, which were donated by BP Solar. In addition to its geothermal system, which provides a 20-30 percent energy savings over conventional school HVACs, the science lab features low-flow facets and waterless urinals, efficient light fixtures with occupancy sensors, recycled concrete and other reclaimed building materials, recycled-content carpet and rapidly renewable floor tiles, Perdum says.
Though the building met many of the objectives needed for LEED certification, Bowman says the district decided against pursing the rating for cost purposes.
“We tried to wrap as many environmental components into this building as we could,” he says. “But when it came time to consider LEED registration, our school district said it wants to adhere to a lot of the components of LEED, but instead of certifying the building it wanted to spend the money in other ways that work for the building and work for the students.”
[header]Curriculum Component
Students in grades one through five visit the science facility once a year, and each year they explore some new component of the life and earth sciences.
“We are very interactive – we don’t stand in front of the kids and lecture,” Grills says. “We are all about getting them involved. I call their five senses their five learning tools because when they come here they need to be able to see, hear, smell, taste and touch. They usually are discussing the subject before they come and they oftentimes follow up on the material after the visit.”
Hopefully, what they do here is highly motivating,” Grills adds. “We want them to recall a lot as they go back to the classroom.”