POPLAR RIDGE — Five years after it was shut down, the recently reopened Southern Cayuga Planetarium will allow a new generation to explore far beyond their corner of central New York.

The facility, located on the campus of Southern Cayuga Central School District in Poplar Ridge, was closed in 2014. But following hundreds of thousands of dollars in improvements, the doors are open for students and the public alike once again. An open house was held Nov. 1, and there visitors could see the planetarium's new projection system and robotics lab, and take part in a virtual reality experience.

Events were held in the building for decades before it was shuttered. Over the last couple years, however, the facility began receiving good news: The Southern Cayuga district received a donation of approximately $85,800 in labor and material from J&B Installations in Skaneateles Falls to replace the roof in December 2017, and that work was completed in 2018.

The facility also qualified for state aid after former interim Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES Superintendent Chris Todd assisted the district in getting it classified by the state education department as a STEM classroom. A $500,000 capital project for improvements, including electrical upgrades and heating/ventilation and ceiling repairs, was approved by community members in May 2018. State Sen. Pam Helming and Assemblyman Gary Finch also snagged a $50,000 state grant for the new projection system for the facility.

District Superintendent Patrick Jensen said in an email there was a great turnout for the open house, with community members sharing stories from their own experiences at the planetarium decades ago. He also noted the planetarium will be available for field trips for fifth grade students from throughout Cayuga County. The planetarium's usefulness is not limited to astronomy, either, as the district emphasizes the importance of technology and preparing students for careers. At the robotics lab, students stored their robots shortly before the beginning of the school year. 

Southern Cayuga High School Principal Luke Carnicelli compared the buzz surrounding the facility's reopening to the enthusiasm he imagines it generated when it first opened in 1968. Just as students felt like they were on the cusp of a new era in the midst of the space race, today's technology invites the same feeling, he said.

"Now we're looking beyond and going to galaxies that we've never even seen before. So it's interesting, because that can be what's next for generations to come. How do we colonize different planets, perhaps, visit another planet, different solar systems, if you will. Because we are just a speck in the grand universe," Carnicelli said.

The school is moving forward with its computer science education initiative, Carnicelli said, which he said is vital to the current job market now and in the future. He said he is thrilled that people will be able to have a new-and-improved planetarium experience. 

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"It's exhilarating to see students come back and we're very excited for that opportunity to offer this to our community, to the school community and beyond," he said.

At the robotics lab Nov. 7, students assembled their machines to compete against each other. Steven Sherman and Hunter Ford worked together, as Hunter's eyes rarely diverted from his robot as he tried to get its motor to stay attached. The two said the lab allows for greater room to work without impeding other students' progress, as the previous robotics area was a bit cramped.

"We probably gained double the space in this compared to the other room," Hunter said.

Teachers Caitlin Rejman and Heather Snyder — who recently trained to operate the facility's projection system  — played a video across the 30-foot dome featuring the moon, the vastness of space, an audio quote from President John F. Kennedy and narration from actor Tim Allen. Carnicelli recalled attending the planetarium back when he was a student in the Auburn school district, but said the area's current technology is far more advanced: "This is the same technology you see in all the major planetariums across the world."

Rejman and Snyder said they plan on buying different educational videos to show students, and they have learned the coding necessary to create live shows. The planetarium will host free monthly star shows for anyone in the Cayuga County area starting with showings at 6, 6:40 and 7:20 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 10. Snyder and Rejman said they believe they can use the projection system to show visual representations of a host of subjects.

"The possibilities are endless," Carnicelli said. 

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Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or kelly.rocheleau@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.