Winnebago County Conservation Board Star Lab History

             When I first began my job as the naturalist for the Winnebago County Conservation Board in 1985, one of the first people I met was the science coordinator for our local area education agency. (Iowa is divided up into several AEA districts whose job is to provide support services to school districts throughout the state.) He introduced me to many of the teachers I would be working with and allowed me to help him out with several programs. One of those programs was a Star Lab program; and that was my first introduction to the Star Lab!

            At that time, as far as I know, only the AEAs in Iowa had Star Labs. Our local AEA had received a grant in the late 1970’s to purchase their two. At that time, teachers and naturalists could borrow them, if they were trained to use them; but, of course, the AEA science coordinators used them the most. The Star Labs were getting some use, but few teachers were trained to use them, and Iowa had few naturalists at the time. The science coordinators at the AEAs were also often too busy to give many Star Lab programs.

            But, I began to promote the Star Lab to the teachers here in Winnebago County and interest began to increase. Soon, I was borrowing the Star Lab frequently to present programs and the teachers and students alike truly enjoyed the unique experience that the Star Lab provided! Soon, the Star Lab was one of my most popular programs!

            By 1997, almost every county in the state had a naturalist, and there was little need for the science coordinators at the AEAs to actually give presentations. (Their jobs became more administrative, helping schools meet standards, etc.) So, our local AEA decided to offer, on a “permanent loan” basis, their two Star Labs to any county conservation board that had a naturalist trained to use them. We jumped at the chance and immediately took them up on the offer! As a result, we received the Star Lab that I had been using all those years. By this time, the Star Lab was almost 20 years old already.

                The terms of the “loan” agreement meant that we had to make the Star Lab available to any school district or county conservation board in the AEA district that requested it. In short, we became a “loaner” site for the lab. Over the years, it has been loaned out to several local school districts, as well as at least three other county conservation boards, numerous times.

            Needless to say, though, we have used it the most. But, there really isn’t any way to accurately determine how many times it has been used over the past 30+ years, or how many kids and adults alike have enjoyed it. To go back over three decades of program records, and to contact every other agency that has borrowed it to ask them to do the same thing, would be a daunting task! It’s safe to say that the number of Star Lab programs presented over the years is well into the hundreds and that thousands of people here in north Iowa have experienced it!

            Obviously, over the years, I have had a lot of great experiences with the Star Lab. Although I have used it with all ages, I have used it primarily with elementary-aged students who routinely call it “Cool!” or “Awesome!” (At almost every program, there is a student that asks me how he or she can get a Star Lab for their bedroom or their backyard!) I have also used it for preschool groups with kids as young as two or three, as well as with mentally-challenged adults

            And, teachers have found creative ways to use the Star Lab. Of course, I’ve used the “Plate Tectonics” cylinder with high school Earth Science classes which, I think, is a unique use of the “Star” Lab. I’ve also developed a program for middle school students on how Lewis and Clark used the stars, and I base my program around a trip to the Star Lab using the “Navigation Stars of Lewis and Clark” cylinder. I’ve also used the Star Lab for high school English classes where the students were studying Greek Mythology and for elementary art classes where the teacher was introducing a unit on Greek art. It’s always been a great way to tie different subjects together and make different aspects of the curriculum meaningful to each other!

            I hope this provides you with the information you needed. The Star Lab has been an invaluable educational tool for us over the years. More and more research comes out each year supporting the conclusion that hands-on, experiential learning is more effective than sitting at a desk and listening to a lecture. If that is true, and I believe wholeheartedly that it is, then the Star Lab is an excellent way to provide that sort of education! Thanks to the award that you have provided to us, we will be able to purchase a new projector, upgrade our system, and provide the students (and adults) here in Winnebago County with a very much improved science education program!


--Lisa Ralls


  Winnebago County Conservation Board


  BS—Fisheries and Wildlife Biology, Iowa State University

  MS—Science Education, University of Iowa



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