Planetarium brings the stars to school

An inflatable, mobile dome - 'the next step from a chalkboard' - lets children unravel the mysteries of the universe.

Tommy Wakefield-Smith hopes his My Planetarium concept will spark pupils' interest in astronomy. Satish Kumar / The National
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DUBAI // Pupils will be able to uncover the mysteries of the universe without leaving their schools thanks to a new, interactive mobile planetarium.
The planetarium, with its inflatable dome, will be on display at the Global Education Forum (GEF) in Dubai next month.
It offers children a virtual-teaching experience that adds fun to lessons about the planets and the solar system, and has already been successfully tried out in Europe and South Africa.
Tommy Wakefield-Smith, a South African consultant who lives in Dubai, is the co-founder of Advanced Sensory Education (ASE), which runs My Planetarium.
Mr Wakefield-Smith hoped the tool could spark children's interest in space. "The mobile planetarium not only provides an excellent learning tool for teachers, but can also be used in many other large-scale entertainment applications," he said.
"Its value to educational institutions is that it is a safe, high-quality, real-life experience of astronomy and the universe, built around structured courses. It is more engaging and entertaining than traditional educational media.
"We opened our first international branch in South Africa to develop and test the model before moving to the Middle East."
The company at present provides about 25 inflatable domes to schools in Europe, and delivered larger fixed-frame geodesic domes for large-scale projects in nightclubs, theatres and for PR events.
The inflatable domes are equipped with a 540-degree projection and an audio system.
A fixed planetarium seating 72 people has been in place at the Gems World Academy in Al Barsha since 2008, and there is a similar one at the Gems World Academy in Abu Dhabi. Neither were built by ASE.
Jason McBride, the principal of the Dubai school, said its planetarium had become a huge asset in learning development. "The wonder of space will always be there, if you are 3 or 103," said Mr McBride.
"The planetarium is an immersive learning environment and is the natural next step from a chalk board and interactive smart board.
"It is an excellent multimedia tool and can also be used to teach other topics. Currently we are using it to teach about insects. It is amazing to have bees on a screen that are eight-feet wide.
"A mobile planetarium is a neat idea and an interesting concept. It would certainly open up this way of learning for more children."
It has been forecast that eLearning revenues in the Middle East will reach US$560 million (Dh2.06 billion) by next year, the GEF says.
The domes are being used to great effect in schools in South Africa. Lessons have been structured around the sky changing from day to night, the moon and its cycles, the stars, planets and why they are named.
Pat Strachan, the principal at Camelot College in Durban, said the mobile planetarium had been a hit in classrooms.
"My Planetarium brings textbooks to life and is bringing teaching into the 21st century," Mr Strachan said.
"With kids having more learning and attention issues, and becoming more easily distracted and unfocused, this is the future of teaching."
The Global Education Forum takes place at Dubai World Trade Centre from February 24 to 26, and encourages the innovative use of information technology in the classroom, and provides case studies of evidence-based learning.