Michigan students will soon have more access to the stars

The Mackinac Bridge under the Northern Lights. Photo: Jason Gillman/Pexels

By Lucas Henkel

December 12, 2023

A fifth grade teacher from Traverse City is finding ways for her students to learn more about the world around them—with help from a park ranger at the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Laurie Lijewski, a fifth grade teacher at Blair Elementary in Traverse City, is always looking for creative ways to get her students excited about what they’re learning about in school—especially when it helps them better understand the world around them. 

“The school I work at is one of the at-risk schools in the district,” Lijewski said. “So getting these students into the community to places that are near them and around them is really important.”. 

When Lijewski learned about a new teacher workshop that was being hosted by park rangers at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, she pounced on the opportunity to attend. The “Night Sky Navigators” teacher workshop offered training on classroom lessons that incorporated astronomy and other space-themed topics. Rangers also shared information on field trip options that offer a similar program for Michigan students. What’s more, the “Night Sky Navigators” program for students meets Michigan Science Standards, and has transportation funding available.

Lijewski, who had taken her own child along to the workshop, said it sparked something in her. 

“I loved seeing how much fun my own kiddo and the other kiddos were having at the Dunes that night,” she said. They even stayed for the Star Party—a public stargazing event where park rangers lead guided explorations of the night sky. Attendees could use high-tech telescopes provided by the Grand Traverse Astronomical Society (GTAS) to view several constellations in the night sky. 

“Just seeing how cool that was, that sparked my interest as an adult. I wanted to pass it on—I wanted my students to engage in this, too,” said Lijewski. 

Once she got back to school, she signed her fifth grade class up. 

The Night Sky Navigators program allows students to visit Sleeping Bear Dunes for a day of astronomy and night sky activities. Once they arrive at the Dunes, students are guided by park rangers to various stations that include hands-on activities and games centered around Michigan’s landscape and the creatures that inhabit it.

“One of the things I enjoyed about the program is that students got to learn so many things,” said Lijewski. “We learned about bats, we learned about flying squirrels—which don’t technically fly according to the students—and they remember that. They’re like, ‘They actually don’t fly, it’s just a skin flap.’”

Making Native connections for Michiganders

In addition to the quirky animal facts, students participating in the Night Sky Navigators program learn cultural stories about the stars and constellations—including Anishinaabe stories about how those constellations came to be.

Dave Fenlon, Education Lead at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, said incorporating Indigenous stories is a key part of their curriculum. 

“We realized that a lot of our programming was sort of a western perspective,” Fenlon said. “Often we’re talking about constellations that are familiar to most people—like the Ursa Major or Canis Major—which come from Greek or Latin origins. The Native Americans of our region—the Anishinaabek—have looked up to the sky for thousands of years. They have well-established stories with really deep meaning that comes from the night sky.” 

Those meanings hold special value for Michiganders. For example, you may be able to easily recognize the Little Dipper when looking up at Michigan’s night sky. It’s called the Little Dipper in the US because its seven brightest stars look like the handle of a ladle. 

It’s also commonly referred to as Ursa Minor—a Latin name meaning “little bear,” in the Greek tradition of naming northern constellations after bears. 

But here in Michigan, Native Americans have long called the constellation Maang—which translates to “loon” in Ojibwe, and is seen as an essential messenger and leader in Native American culture. According to the Great Lakes Guide for Ojibwe astronomy, “The animal sits on calm water with awkwardly positioned feet and legs. They cannot walk well on land; therefore, they avoid leaving the water and only go on the mainland to nest…. When you see the many white spots on the loon, it looks reminiscent of a starry night sky.”

The maang constellation holds a star called the Giiwiidin Anang—otherwise known as Polaris (Latin), or the north star. 

Fenlon has been working closely with members of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians to ensure that the stories of Michigan’s night sky are being told accurately, and in a way that respects the storytelling traditions of the tribes. 

“There are different stories for different seasons, depending on what constellations are in the sky at that given time of year,” said Fenlon. He explained that it’s taboo for certain stories to be told outside of their season—a winter story cannot be told in the summer, for instance—so it’s crucial that the programming isn’t insensitive to those traditions. 

Taking a more inclusive night sky on the road

Photo Courtesy of Unsplash

Fenlon believes they could be doing even more to educate students about Michigan’s night sky, but there are a variety of barriers to making that happen. 

“It’s hard to get students out to the park at night,” he said. “We do host events on weekends, but parents in underserved communities probably wouldn’t be able to take time off and come out.” Fenlon realized that in order to reach more students, he and his team would have to get a little creative. 

During a yearly open call for grant proposals from the National Park Foundation, Fenlon submitted a proposal—which he named Sharing Inclusive Star Stories—and received funding, alongside a handful of other national parks. 

With the grant money, Fenlon and his team wanted to build and expand on the success of the Night Sky Navigators program, but also make it more accessible to students who live hundreds of miles away from the park. So they’re buying an inflatable planetarium.

It’s a 16-foot-wide inflatable dome that students can sit inside. The dome’s ceiling transforms into a high-quality screen, on which students can watch videos of night sky constellations, planets, and more—all without leaving their school building. 

Fenlon’s team is also working on purchasing 3D-printed models of some Anishinaabe constellations, so that students that are blind or have low-vision can participate. 

The Sharing Inclusive Star Stories program is expected to be ready for the 2024-2025 school year. Educators and schools can start signing up for the free program on the Sleeping Bear Dunes’ website around April or May. 


  • Lucas Henkel

    Lucas Henkel is a multimedia reporter who strives to inform and inspire local communities. Before joining The 'Gander, Lucas served as a journalist for the Lansing City Pulse.


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