The McAuliffe Center celebrates the legacy of FSU’s most famous alumna

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

As the nation and the world reflect on the 30th anniversary of the Challenger explosion, the legacy of one of the seven passengers killed during the Jan. 28, 1986 tragedy lives on at FSU.

The Christa Corrigan McAuliffe Center, located behind O’Connor Hall, was named in memory of FSU’s most renowned alumna.

McAuliffe graduated FSU in 1970 with a Bachelor’s degree in history and education, became a teacher and was “selected out of more than 11,000 applicants” to be the first teacher to travel to space, according to the website christa.org.

Established in 1994, the McAuliffe Center is one of 40 Challenger Centers located around the world, and was designed to keep McAuliffe’s passion alive for sharing STEM education with young students and to assistant science teachers, according to McAuliffe Center Director Irene Porro.

“The Challenger Center network was created right after the accident,” said Porro. “The family members of the astronauts who died in the accident came together to make sure their loved ones were not so much remembered because of the way they died but because of what they did and what their mission and vision was.”

Porro added, “Clearly, that space mission’s goal was to promote education. Christa’s vision was to be a teacher for a global community. So when the family members of the astronauts came together, it was pretty natural to them they needed to create an education initiative.”

Exposing young minds to STEM education is one of the most important missions of the McAuliffe Center, Porro said.

Over the last 21 years, thousands of k-16 students from school systems around the state of Massachusetts and New England have visited the McAuliffe Center to learn about STEM education and experience interactive technology by participating in scientifically accurate simulations of space exploration missions, she said.

She added the McAuliffe Center has helped promote STEM education with FSU students by working alongside the University’s STEM departments.

Associate Professor and Chair of the physics and earth sciences department Vandana Singh said the McAuliffe Center is an “invaluable resource at FSU and a wonderful ally” to her department.

Several classes from the department have watched shows at FSU’s planetarium, which the McAuliffe Center oversees.

The planetarium and the McAuliffe Center, Singh said, helps students’ “understanding of the universe and our place in it.”

By sharing space technology and information that “excites” students, Singh said the McAuliffe Center is helping to further Christa McAuliffe’s legacy.

Porro said she believes the best way to advance the legacy of McAuliffe is not just to present STEM education in an exciting way, but also to highlight the difficult nature of it.

“It’s exhilarating when you can solve a problem,” she added. “I really think it’s a question of how you approach things. Unfortunately, too often as educators, we don’t always do the best job in engaging our audiences – particularly in math and science.”

The administrators at the McAuliffe Center applied for a $1.25 million grant from NASA last November in order to fund ongoing technological renovations, according to Porro.

The NASA grant is awarded to institutions that practice informal education, she said.

The grant is “highly competitive,” Porro said, and many museums, universities and science laboratories have applied for it.

One of the uses of the grant would be to continue renovating the McAuliffe Center and expanding it, she said.

If the McAuliffe Center receives the NASA grant, Porro said, not only would six new interactive exhibits be created for the main lobby of the Center, but some of the grant could possibly fund up to four paid internships for FSU students.

Portions of the NASA grant could possibly fund trips to the center by after school programs in underprivileged areas, she added.

The McAuliffe Center’s main lobby was recently renovated. The remodeling included the installation of a computer and large monitor that displays data downloaded from the International Space Station (ISS). Visitors can use a mouse and click on different parts of the ISS, which generates informational videos and text.

The interactive program also includes a 360 degree virtual tour of the inside of the ISS and includes video of real astronauts – including Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, who holds the record for longest duration in space for a female astronaut – describing life aboard the station.

One of the informational videos includes an explanation on how the hatch mechanisms located on the ISS work.

The virtual tour simulator was sent to the McAuliffe Center in December and was donated by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which were selected by NASA as the “sole manager of the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory,” according to ISS-CASIS.org.

The mission statement of CASIS, according to the site, is to “maximize use of this unparalleled platform for innovation, which can benefit all humankind and inspire a new generation to look to the stars.”

The technology is so expansive, she said, that she and the staff of the McAuliffe Center are still learning it.

Because the data used in the virtual tour simulation comes directly from the station, Porro said the simulator can be updated regularly as more information is discovered.

Assistant Director of the Center Bruce Mattson said the CASIS donation provides visitors with an “introduction to the work they do on board the ISS.”

The virtual tour simulator, which features a handicap accessible ramp, will hopefully bring more FSU student visitors to the McAuliffe Center, Porro said.

Adorning the walls surrounding the virtual tour simulator are newly purchased panels, which are meant to mimic the appearance of the walls aboard the ISS.

The paneling was designed by a local contractor and was constructed by a local company, said Porro.

Beyond renovations in the McAuliffe Center, Porro said she hopes to raise awareness of the Center by holding several events on campus. Raising the profile of the McAuliffe Center, she said, will help more FSU students to “learn about our own planet.”

On April 6, she said, the McAuliffe Center will hold a “major event” in which several astronauts will participate in a panel discussion where they will discuss how their views on the world and humankind have changed since they returned to Earth.

On August 7-11, the McAuliffe Center will host a conference that will be attended by representatives of all Challenger Centers, including ones based in South Korea, Canada, and the United Kingdom, she said.

“One thing I would like people to know is how we are much more than a center for kids.  We are a center for learners of all ages,” Porro said.

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