Teachers and staff at Hall Elementary in North Minneapolis unveiled the school’s new observatory to families on November 9. The observatory, complete with a massive telescope that can spot the moon’s craters, will allow students at the STEM magnet school to see in real time the stars and planets that they learn about in astronomy class.
“We can actually bring them up and let them see with their own eyes,” astronomy teacher Kristin Caquelin said. “So much of what I do is trying to help them to understand big topics in space, but even just simple things, it’s hard to grasp. When you can see them with your own eyes it’s a little bit easier.”
The event on Wednesday night involved kids trying out telescopes from the Minnesota Astronomical Society, seeing stars in a blow-up planetarium and traveling upstairs to check out the observatory.
NASA astronaut Raja Chari greeted students and families in the observatory’s dome and answered questions about space (and his favorite color, which is blue).
"I wish my kids had a giant telescope,” Chari said.
The telescope works during the day and at night. A computer records images during the night so that students can see any special events in space that they missed while not at school. Additionally, the telescope filters out the city lights so that the user can see much more than typically visible in an urban setting. This is an important feature for Caquelin, who said that she’s struggled as an urban astronomy teacher whose students don’t always have access to a ride outside of the city, where stars and planets are easier to see.
“All in all, it’s putting astronomy in the kids’ hands and allowing them to be able to experience it themselves,” she said.
The kids at Wednesday’s event wore lab coats from Boston Scientific, of which Caquelin hopes to get a class set so that students can wear the coats during her astronomy class and feel like scientists doing important work.
“The goal is that eventually we’ll be able to use them as our ‘stepping into being the scientist’ mind,” Caquelin said.
Families and other attendees buzzed with excitement over the observatory. Many waited in line to climb the freshly painted green staircase or take the lift up to the observatory’s peak, where they checked out the new technology and took photos with the astronaut. Annie Lampkin, parent of a Hall second grader said that her daughter loved the school since attending fully in person this year for the first time since the pandemic hit during her daughter’s kindergarten year.
“She loves science, I love science and this is a dream. I would’ve loved to have something like this at my school,” Lampkin said while in line for the observatory.
Eric Moore, Minneapolis Public Schools Senior Advisor to the Superintendent, said that opening the observatory after working on the idea for two years nearly brought him to tears. He and Caquelin believe that the observatory, paired with the astronomy program and digital learning center, will be a major pull factor for families and a connector for the community. Caquelin hopes to collaborate with other schools so that students from around the city can use the telescope, and Moore hopes that the observatory will draw astronomers to Hall.
“I’m really excited about the excitement of the students and seeing them in their lab coats. I see in their eyes already this idea that they could be an astronaut,” he said. “I think North Minneapolis deserves our best.”
Funding for the Hall Observatory
The observatory at Hall came about as part of the district’s Comprehensive District Design, which, among other changes, changed the system of magnet schools within the district. Previously, students had access to magnet programs within a zone based on their home address.
Magnet schools are now citywide, meaning that any student in the district can apply to the annual lottery to attend any magnet school. If accepted, students who live outside of the magnet school walk zone will be provided with free bussing. As part of the CDD, magnet schools were deliberately placed in schools near the geographic center of the city.
For students in MPS who move frequently, previously, moving addresses often means changing schools. The citywide magnet programs provide these students with a stable school, regardless of where they live within the district.
Capital funding for the observatory was approved in May 2020 as part of the five-year, $141 million capital plan as part of the Comprehensive District Design. Originally planned for opening in 2023, the school board voted in May 2021 to bring the project forward one year. Construction was completed this summer.
Astronaut Raja Chari answered questions and took photos with students at the unveiling of the Hall Elementary Observatory on Wednesday (Anna Koenning).
Minneapolis Public Schools Senior Advisor to the Superintendent Eric Moore stepped inside the blow-up planetarium during the unveiling of the Hall Elementary observatory. “I was almost in tears watching because it’s going to make a difference in the lives of the students,” he said (Anna Koenning).