Osceola Sexton Planetarium History
In the early 1970’s, Osceola Sexton was an elderly, Area 1 science specialist for Montgomery County. She was responsible for teaching all aspects of the county’s science curriculum to 23 elementary schools. She had a bubbly, passionate presence that would fill a classroom or meeting.“Osceola Sexton was engaging and exciting,” responded John Sparrow, a prior kinder garden-first grade student (1967-68). “She made you curious about science.” “Osceola used to drive an old, black Checker cab”, said Mrs. Mary Anne Frye, Wood Acres ES art teacher. “She’d stuff bunnies, chickens, guppies, pea plants or telescopes into the cab to teach science lessons. She taught hands-on-science before it was a concept.” Osceola Sexton was also an amateur astronomer and member of the Mid-Atlantic Planetarium Society (MAPS). She loved stars and space. Ms. Sexton would travel with a portable dome teaching astronomy to Montgomery county elementary school students. “She was your typical, tall blue-haired grandmother with therapeutic shoes,” commented Peter Kelly, a former second through sixth grade student (1974-77). “If students saw the black Checker in the parking lot, they’d get really excited. We knew it was Planetarium Day.”
The First Space Race
By 1970, the world space race was in full swing. The U.S. was infatuated with space. Neil Armstrong had walked on the Moon. China had launched its first satellite. In 1971, Russia’s Salyut 1, the first space station, reached unmanned orbit. In 1973, NASA launched the Skylab Space Station. Being a science teacher and amateur astronomer, Osceola had a dream. Why not install a fixed dome planetarium to teach students about space and the stars? The portable dome was small and couldn’t contain many students. The equipment was limited. She could do more “tricks” under a fixed dome. She pursued her dream with fervor and determination encouraging the Montgomery County school system to purchase a planetarium fixed dome and equipment.
At the time, declining student enrollment left empty classrooms in some elementary schools. Located at 4800 Sangamore Road, Bethesda, MD, Brookmont Elementary School had vacant classrooms. Why not install a planetarium in this school? In December 1972, Brookmont ES received a $6,880 grant under the Title of Locally Developed Curriculum Projects for the purchase and installation of a Farquhar planetarium.
In the spring of 1973, the planetarium was installed in Room 2 at Brookmont ES. Equipment included a 14-foot wide fixed dome hung by ceiling chains, 35 wooden chairs situated under the dome, a rotation motor projector, four plastic celestial globes (one black night sky and three clear globes - mythology, sky map, and coordinates), eastwest lights, a slide projector and 14 earth-in-space globes. The 14 globes could be used in the planetarium or in individual classrooms. Special blackout shades were also installed to block out sunlight from the classroom windows. Osceola Sexton focused on teaching constellations under the dome.
The Planetarium Program
In 1973, Osceola Sexton began training classroom teachers to operate the Farquhar celestial globes and equipment. Interested teachers were required to take a 15-week (3 hours/week) training program to operate the planetarium equipment. Area 1 elementary students would be bussed in for their annual planetarium class. Also, Brookmont ES kinder garden through sixth grade students received only one planetarium lesson per year.
“At the end of class, if students were good, Ms. Sexton would spin the cylinder really fast. Literally, the stars were a blur of streaking trails of light. She called it “Spin the Stars,” remembered Peter Kelly. “If students got fidgety before the end of a session, she’d remind them to be good, or she wouldn’t spin the stars. The kids loved it.” Ms. Sexton, however, was responsible for teaching the county science curriculum at 23 different schools. The planetarium sat empty for many hours during the year. One parent, Barbara Muller, had other ideas. “I used to see the planetarium empty for days and days,” said Mrs. Muller. “So, I approached Osceola about taking her teacher instructor course. I sat in for a few sessions and got hooked.” In the fall of 1974, Barbara took Ms. Sexton’s 15-week astronomy instructor class, in addition to her own reading and attending various Smithsonian courses given in downtown Washington D.C. In the spring of 1975, Barbara Muller began teaching her first volunteer planetarium classes. Any student could skip noon recess and come into the planetarium for a mini-astronomy course. “I would dash down to the Smithsonian lectures, and then bring current information back to the students to give them up-to-date astronomy lessons,” said Barbara Muller. “Kids love to learn facts and figures about space.”
One volunteer to bring them all in...
In 1976, Osceola Sexton retired teaching. As a volunteer, Mrs. Muller took on the responsibility to keep the planetarium program alive. She approached the Montgomery County school system and offered to teach volunteer astronomy classes at Brookmont ES. Montgomery County paid Mrs. Muller a small payment when she taught annual astronomy sessions to bussed-in elementary school students. During the 1975-76 school year, Mrs. Muller taught three to four classes for one annual visit, and also taught a mini-course of six sessions to fifth graders and other students during lunch recess. Classes would begin with a lecture session, then the blackout shades would be drawn. Students would walk under the dome to learn about planet placement and star constellations.
By 1976-77, a few more classes attended the planetarium for one session. Small groups of fifth graders attended six sessions.
In the fall of 1977, Barbara Muller began teaching full time. Now recognized as the “Star Lady”, Barbara prepared and wrote lesson plans for each grade level. She kept the planetarium running. Barbara started taking K-6 grade students, plus one special education class into the classroom from September through June. At the time, there were two classrooms per grade. Each class received nine sessions every school year until 1982. This amounted to 135 astronomy classes taught each year. “I taught three full school days each month to cover all the classes,” said Barbara. I also had the Western Junior High Science Club come about five times per year for a couple years. The junior high students came after school hours. I also did occasional programs for scout groups, Indian Guides, nursery schools and a church group.”
In 1979, Osceola Sexton passed away at the age of 70. Brookmont ES parents, teachers and students dedicated the planetarium in honor of Osceola Sexton. On the dome, the dedication was believed to have been backdated to 1975, to reflect the last year Osceola Sexton taught science classes in Montgomery County. Also, the year 1975 was noted as the official year the volunteer parent program began, thanks to Barbara Muller’s hard work and dedication. At Brookmont ES from 1975 until 1982, she was the sole parent who taught all of the astronomy courses.
Brookmont ES to Wood Acres ES
In the spring of 1982, Montgomery County officially closed the doors of Brookmont ES. School attendance had declined to the point it was not economically or functionally feasible to operate this school. In the fall of 1982, Brookmont students would attend their new school, Wood Acres Elementary School, located at 5800 Cromwell Drive, Bethesda, MD. Brookmont ES parents were quite concerned about what would happen to the planetarium. “Closing the Brookmont Elementary School was a traumatic experience for both parents and students. And they didn’t want to see the dome boxed up and stacked back into a corner of the old school,” said Barbara. “Parents from both Brookmont and Wood Acres rallied to ask the county school system to move the planetarium to Wood Acres.”
At Wood Acres ES, the county school system funded to have one area retrofitted behind the basement kinder garden rooms. A pit was dug out to install the dome and planetarium equipment. Students could sit on a carpeted area for their lessons. Then, they walked down inside a recessed area under the dome. However, due to limited funding, any other improvements would have to be the responsibility of the Wood Acres PTA and parents.
From one to 40 Volunteers...and beyond!
Instead of 12 classes, Barbara Muller would be responsible for 17 kindergarden through sixth grade classes. Luckily, she met Becky Berg, a new volunteer with a strong astronomy background. In the fall of 1982, these two dedicated parent volunteers recruited and co-trained 6-7 additional volunteers to help teach astronomy lessons to the Wood Acres students. Among the first Wood Acres parent volunteers were Becky Berg, Wendy Fox, and Margie Mitzner. During the 1983-84 school year, over 40 volunteers were recruited to teach the planetarium sessions. Ms. Berg also helped develop new and elaborate lesson plans, with some lessons still being used today. The Wood Acres volunteer planetarium program was in full swing. Outside students from different elementary schools were now bussed to Wood Acres ES for their annual planetarium sessions. However, Wood Acres students received additional lessons, thanks to the motivated volunteer parent program set up by Barbara Muller and Becky Berg. In 1983 and each year thereafter, in the fall new volunteer parent would receive a six-week astronomy program. Parents then began teaching student classes in early winter. Each kindergarden through sixth grade class received six individual lessons. Parents also gave boy scout and girl scout groups, private preschool classes, elementary schools, and astronomy club members various lessons under the dome.
In 1985, Barbara Muller retired from teaching to move to Ohio. Becky Berg continued to teach and maintain the program long after her child graduated until 1992. She continued to train volunteers until she retired in 1995. As the years passed, county funding for bussing in outside students faded away. In the fall of 1987, sixth grade students now attended middle school. Wood Acres ES only incorporated kindergarden through fifth grade students.
(expand on purpose-built Planetarium including art works etc)
written by Lisa Hill 2005
April 2005 phone interviews with Barbara Muller, Becky Berg (remarried and now Becky Pinkerton), Wendy Fox, Peter Kelly, John Swallow, Joan Fread, Carol Simon, and Steven Berr from Learning Technologies.
Conversations with Mrs. Mary Anne Frye, Ms. Martie Isralow and Mr. Joe Kapusnick – school teachers at Wood Acres Elementary School.
Personal typed notes by Barbara Muller (December 1972; July 25, 1978; January 1981 and March 1982).
Copies of articles provided by Barbara Muller.
MCPS Bulletin article: “Brookmont ES Students See Stars (November 16, 1981)
Brookmonitor article: “Stars” (June 1982),
Windsor Publications article: “Education-Proven Performance” (1983),
Wood Acres Wood Chips (January 1983)
Montgomery County Public School – Records Department.
April 1979 Office of the Superintendent of Schools memorandum and Brookmont Elementary School letter regarding Osceola Sexton’s demise and Planetarium Honor Ceremony
Thank you to all the parents, teachers and technicians who have provided this historical information of the Osceola Sexton Planetarium.