Reaching for the Stars


By Annali Hayward

On a typical Tuesday afternoon in New Canaan, from the comfort of your fully-reclining cinema chair, it is possible to journey to a galaxy far, far away. Without moving, you can soar through the stratosphere and cross the very limits of the known universe — in a matter of seconds. 

It’s thrilling; and it is all thanks to the revamped, renovated Dome at New Canaan High School, a state-of-the-art immersive and interactive learning theater located in the original 1971 planetarium. 

“We had a few false starts,” Superintendent Bryan Luizzi said Tuesday, as a select audience gathered for the grand opening, first screenings and a ceremonial ribbon-cutting. “It’s been a labor of love,” he said of the project, which started in 2016 but stalled, most significantly during the pandemic. “But third time’s a charm.”

Teachers have spent over 100 hours training on the new systems, ready for students to start using the space, which includes a 30-ft, ceiling-mounted circular theater screen, dual 4K Sony projector system, and LED cove lighting. Each of the 65 seats has a built-in, retractable desk — but students will be more excited by the Digistar 7 program software, which allows the blending of visual and sound experiences to create a full 180-degree image.

After the ribbon-cutting, Luizzi — clearly excited by the potential of the facility — guided attendees through a stellar screening, touching on topics as diverse as the furthest galaxies, to digitally manipulating and dissecting a brain, to immersive history lessons where students find themselves suddenly standing in the Coliseum.

Even the toughest film critics — second graders — gave it a rave review in a recent pre-screening. “To experience their chatter was really special,” said Melinda Meyer, Director of Innovation for New Canaan Public Schools, whose role it is to oversee curricular connections.

Luizzi anticipates a fall opening for members of the community to experience the Dome, with potential policies for rentals being drafted. “We have to keep the magic for the kids, though,” he said.

New Canaan’s lucky students will be able to come up with some of their own magic too, as many will have the chance to produce their own content for the facility — one of an estimated dozen in the country with similar capabilities.

“Good schools teach kids to interpret other peoples’ stuff,” said Luizzi, but “great schools teach them to create them own.” 

The upgrade was made possible through a public-private partnership, with the Dome Committee, spearheaded by Sara Schubert, bringing in 429 private donors — including alumni from every decade since 1950 — totaling $350,000 in just one year. The Town of New Canaan contributed $500,000. Sponsors’ names and memorial stars adorn the walls outside the theater. 

Schubert, a New Canaan native and former English teacher, recalled taking astronomy at the High School and feeling a real connection to a science topic for the first time: “I could go camping, look up at the stars…and feel something.” This spurred her to action for the Dome, and although she had hoped for a Thanksgiving opening, the extra time has allowed for even further fine-tuning. “I’m beyond excited and honored…to have been a part of something that’s going to last for generations,” she told the Sentinel. “And the women that I worked with on this committee, and Zach [Whitlock, Sound and Lighting Technician]…have all been brilliant partners.”

Among those in attendance was Dionna Carlson, First Selectman, who told the Sentinel the Dome is exciting not only for students, but eventually also as a resource for the community. Indeed with elevator access to the third floor, the potential exists for cross-generational participation, from nursery schools to nursing homes. 

It is this collective quality of experience that seems to have inspired Luizzi the most. 

“In a world that is driving us to look down at our small screens, isolated and alone,” he said, “this is what [we] need: to think big, not small, by having these shared experiences that we can remember.”

And Luizzi is conscious that these experiences are a privilege for the community. “We believe in education as a town, we’re committed to it, and we recognize the importance of making that as available to others as much as we can,” he told the Sentinel. “It’s something we will grow in to and we will be partnering with some surrounding towns.”

For now, it’s another star turn for New Canaan Public Schools — one that sites it firmly in the stratosphere.

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