New SkyLab Observatory Gives Students ‘the Universe at their Fingertips’

Unique facility funded by Manheim Township Education Foundation through donor support

October 14, 2021 (Lancaster, Pa.) – A football team doesn’t have to erect goal posts every time they kick a field goal, so an astronomy class shouldn’t need to set up a telescope every time they want to study the sky, reasons Dave Farina, a science teacher, and the planetarium director at Manheim Township High School. A permanent home for scientific equipment creates efficiency; it’s also key factor contributing to solid research, good science, and more learning for more students. And thanks to Farina, the Manheim Township Education Foundation (MTEF) and several key donors, the sky’s the limit for scientific observation in Manheim Township School District.

Completed this past summer, the SkyLab Observatory, on the grounds of Manheim Township’s Neffsville campus, includes an outdoor science classroom equipped for students grades K-12 to learn, conduct research and connect to planetariums and observatories across the globe.  A permanent structure with a retractable roof, the Skylab provides a home for the district’s observational astronomy equipment, including a professional refractor telescope. Permanent mounting improves the precision of instruments and reduces variables in experiments, while protection from the elements and decreased handling extends the longevity of equipment. Now, instructors spend less time training students on equipment and more time teaching; students spend significantly less time setting up and breaking down and more time collecting data and conducting scientific research of the sky.

“We have never before had an opportunity to place students in a real-world outdoor research laboratory on campus that had the potential to allow for real scientific work to be conducted from start to finish. In this observatory, students quite literally have the universe at their fingertips. The ability to have such experiences in grades K-12 is unparalleled at the local or state level. Very few examples exist on a national level that rival this level of commitment to STEAM learning,” says Farina.

The observatory will educate more than 6,000 students in sciences, foster interest in STEM subjects such as math, physics, astrophysics, and engineering, and will be available to the community for regularly scheduled “star watches.”  As the SkyLab is incorporated into curriculum, Kindergarten through eighth grade students will benefit from hands-on observational astronomy directly related to the content discussed during planetarium visits. High school students will learn to conduct reliable and repeatable research from daily observations utilizing this turn-key facility. Students in physics and astronomy classes, STEM Independent Study, and Astronomy Club will be taught to run visual observations and host star watches for the community at large, building their technological knowledge and leadership skills.

The groundbreaking nature and potential impact of the SkyLab attracted MTEF, a 501(c)(3) organization that supports students, educators and administrators in Manheim Township by providing resources for innovative educational programs.  While the SkyLab fully aligns with curriculum and was approved by the district, it was MTEF, by working with several donors, who funded the SkyLab Observatory.  First presented to MTEF by Farina during the 2017-2018 school year, the $125,000 project was funded over three years, in four phases, including an initial fact-finding and engineering phase.

“MTEF exists to support innovation in its many forms. The SkyLab provides a more efficient, effective way to get students engaged and excited about astronomy. This project fit our mission and was in alignment with the district’s long-range plan.  We worked with several of our donors to get phase one and two off the ground. Then the project was approved through the Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program which allowed us to bring on several other community partners to support the program over the subsequent two phases,” says Jenny Germann, MTEF Executive Director.

Germann names Clark Associates Charitable Foundation; APR Supply; Brightbill Transportation; Ephrata National Bank; Fulton Bank; Gibbel, Kraybill and Hess; High Industries; Mid Penn Bank; Orrstown Bank; Pediatric Therapeutic Services; Peoples Bank; S&T Bank; Sharp Shopper; Traditions Bank; Univest; Waste Management; and Weis as providing key donations to bring this project to fruition.