Posted on Mar 22, 1996

Jane Sadler's Starlab

Jane Sadler '73 enjoyed the ten years she spent working as a teacher and school principal, but, she says, those jobs don't compare to her current
occupation selling planetariums.

That's right, Sadler sells planetariums.

Well, it's called Starlab, if you want to get technical, and if you or your school system is in the market for your own portable planetarium, Sadler is the person to speak to.

It started seventeen years ago when Sadler's husband, Philip, was teaching at a special education school in Lincoln, Mass. One day he took his class to the Hayden Planetarium in Boston. The students were so taken with
their journey into the galaxy
that they told their teacher they wanted their own planetarium. Little did they know that they were planting a seed in an entrepreneur's brain.

Philip Sadler set out to fulfill his students' request, and nearly two decades later he and his wife have done that and much more. Together, they have brought the planetarium experience to more than 1,000 schools and millions of students throughout the country.

Along the way, their Cambridge-based company, Learning Technologies, Inc., has grown from a two-person operation to a
thirteen member team that has its own manufacturing facility producing between twelve and fourteen Starlab systems every month. Depending on how many projection cylinders are purchased, the Starlab costs between $10,000 and $13,000.

“Astronomy is a subject that excites a lot of people,” Sadler says, “but I have to admit, it was something I was just thrown into. I never would have grasped at it myself.”

She has done a lot more than grasp at it. Since quitting her job as a school principal in suburban Boston twelve years ago, Sadler has dedicated herself full-time to the family business. She runs the company and travels throughout the country pitching the product at trade shows. Her husband, the astronomy buff in the family, now teaches at the Harvard School of Education and works at the university's Center for Astrophysics.

“I was a psychology major at Union, so I never thought I'd be doing this,” she says. “I was
always interested in education, but I just didn't think I'd be involved in it in this way.”

The sales pitch is a simple one. An entire planetarium that can hold thirty students rolls into a forty-pound duffel bag, and the rest of the equipment fits into two small carrying cases. In fact, the entire contraption can fit into the hatchback of a small car. With the help of a fan that comes with the product, in less than ten minutes Starlab inflates into a
twelve foot high circular tent approximately sixteen feet in diameter. The projectors are simple to use and can project about 3,000 stars
across the roof of the dome.

“We've had planetarium directors from some of the best planetariums in the
country try it,” she says. “And they are shocked by how accurate it is. They're skeptical at first, but they end up being amazed by how many stars we can get up there, and how bright they are.”

The Sadlers have also used their Starlab to ride the wave of multicultural education. They have developed several projection cylinders that show how different cultures throughout the world have looked at the stars. The lessons also explore the relationship between mythology and the stars throughout history.

Starlab allows students to become involved in their learning because they can literally reach up and touch the Milky Way, the sun, the planets, and the constellations. “I think the trend in education is going away from lecturing to more interactive, hands-on activities,” Sadler says. “Starlab fits in well with that because it's not just a teacher standing at the front of a room and playing a tape recorder.”

The company also has a built-in expansion mechanism; users throughout the country can develop their own curricula and send their suggestions back to the Sadlers in Cambridge.

“I run into users all over the country who come up to me and ask for my husband's autograph,” she says. “It's really changed the way so many teachers teach. And the number of kids it has touched must be somewhere in the millions.”