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Christa McAuliffe Center reopens after $8 million renovation


Maddison Behringer / THE GATEPOST

By Adam Levine

Editorial Staff


The Christa McAuliffe Center for Integrated Science Learning reopened to the public Jan. 27 after a multi-year, multi-million-dollar renovation.


Executive Vice President Dale Hamel said the University had been looking at renovating the Christa McAuliffe Center for “quite some time.”


He said, “We had conceptual plans, and even some initial ideas of what we would do if we could get the funding.”


Hamel said much of the financing for the renovation came from state funding after the COVID-19 pandemic.


He said $5 million came from the Massachusetts State Legislature as FY22 supplemental funding, which the University received in FY23, to specifically be used for McAuliffe Center renovations.


The University received an additional $3.8 million of supplemental funding in FY23, $2 million of which was allocated to the McAuliffe Center project. The University applied for funding from the Massachusetts Skills Grant Program and received $500,000.


Finally, the University applied for funding from the Massachusetts Cultural Council Facilities Program and received $125,000, which required the University to match with its own allocation of $125,000 for the project, according to Hamel.


Hamel said the first $5 million allowed the University to apply for other sources of funding. “The other agencies like to fund projects that they know are going to proceed.”


He said the funds raised went toward the three major phases of a project of this size - study, design, and construction - with construction being where the bulk of the money was spent.


Hamel said there are “two main objectives” the University wanted to achieve with the renovation.


He said one was to “reinvigorate the programs that were offered to K-12 students - and largely that's middle school because that's where you have the largest impact is influencing middle school students to be interested in science.”


He said, “We also wanted to be sure that more programming and offerings were made to the FSU community.” 


Hamel said this is both through working with academic departments and expanding “recreational offerings to students as well.


“I think that's an area that we’ll still need to develop what that means in terms of making it an interesting place and experience for students to be able to participate in,” he added.


Hamel said his favorite renovation is the digital projectors in the planetarium. “The digital projectors are really remarkable in terms of what they can offer.”


He added that despite the capabilities of the state-of-the-art projector, he will miss the projector that was installed two renovations ago. “That's what I remember as the first time I went to a planetarium.”


Direc­tor of the Christa Corrigan McAuliffe Center for Inte­grated Science Learning Irene Porro said the renovations began during fall 2022 and officially ended in October 2023.


She said the only walls remaining after the construction are on the perimeter of the planetarium. “We wanted to fully, efficiently take advantage of every single square inch in this space.”


She said the “key goal” of the renovation was to create “multi-functional” spaces in the Center in order to serve a “much wider variety of audiences.”


Porro said, “The planetarium today is truly what we say. ‘It's a fully immersive learning environment.’


“It's not designed for a specific discipline - it's the opposite. It's designed to accommodate a wide range of disciplines but also to create experiences with that intersection of different fields,” she added.


Porro said the Center was originally built to “provide learning experiences in space science,” specifically to middle-school students.


“That is what we still very much do,” she said. “But for me today, I like to say the McAuliffe Center is a catalyst - a place where things happen. We provide the context for new learning to happen, not just in space education.”


She said the Center currently partners with five high schools in the area - Framingham High School, Marlborough High School, Milford High School, Keefe Regional Technical School, and  Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School - for the Perspectives of Earth - Teen Mentorship (PETM) program.


PETM is run by MetroWest STEM Education Network, which is located at the Christa McAuliffe Center. It is “a project-based, team mentorship program where students work on real-world multifaceted environmental projects by integrating STEM and communication strategies” and includes a summer internship program, according to metroweststem.com


“The idea here is to bring high school students to campus, which is again an important aspect -  showing prospective students our campus,” Porro said.


She said the high school students work during the spring and the program leads into a paid summer internship focused on environmental issues. “The idea is to start familiarizing them with these issues, but also to start thinking about what we can do to problem-solve.”


The Christa McAuliffe Center was created in 1994 to honor Christa Corrigan McAuliffe ’70, as well as the six crew members who lost their lives in the Challenger shuttle explosion on Jan. 28, 1986.


McAuliffe was going to be the first teacher in space as part of the Teacher-in-Space Program with NASA announced by President Ronald Reagan on Aug. 27, 1984, according to the McAuliffe Center’s website.


In her application essay, McAuliffe said, “I cannot join the space program and restart my life as an astronaut, but this opportunity to connect my abilities as an educator with my interests in history and space is a unique opportunity to fulfill my early fantasies. I watched the space program being born and would like to participate,” according to the Center’s website.


The Christa McAuliffe Center is also one of the Challenger Center locations. The Challenger Center is “a leading STEM education nonprofit organization that develops and delivers simulation-based STEM programs to students at Challenger Learning Centers and in classrooms,” according to its website.


The Challenger Center was formed 37 years ago and has served over six million students across its 35 learning centers, according to its website.

 

Challenger Center President and CEO Lance Bush said, “This Challenger Center has been one of our most successful Challenger Centers and very meaningful, being named after the teacher in space, Christa Corrigan McAuliffe.”


Bush said the renovation “allows us to continue the great work we're doing here and make it even more robust.”


He said, “We've updated everything - the technology, the software's here, the whole experience for the students.”


Bush added the renovations are a “resource” for the whole community - both the University and other students in the area.


He said his favorite part is the overall “wow factor” of the final renovations. “I walk in a room and go ‘Wow!’ and then walk in the next room and go ‘Wow!’”


Bush said, “My personal hope for this is what I hope for all of our centers - it is an integrated part of a whole ecosystem here that is inspiring and educating the students so that they can carry forward themselves in this path. And this leads to more job opportunities here in this community and a better economy and overall a better society here in each one of the communities we serve.”


Framingham Mayor Charlie Sisitsky said the renovation of the Center “helps to put Framingham on the map” and can help boost tourism to the city.


“It’s just a win-win for everybody,” he said.


Sisitsky said, “We're just excited that the state supported this program and we're happy to do whatever we could to support it - we’re happy it got completed.”


Senate President Karen Spilka said she remembers bringing her two sons to the Center when they were in elementary school. “Their eyes lit up.”


Spilka said, “Everybody sees the stars. Everybody has thought at some point, ‘Wow, wouldn't it be cool to be an astronaut?’


“The story of Christa is relatable to pretty much everybody and tragic as well,” she added.


Spilka said, “We need to have more and more students get excited and go into the STEM field - science, technology, engineering, math.”


Spilka said experiential learning is the best way to get kids of all ages excited about STEM.


“We have a lot of major problems that we need solved in the next years - the next decades,” Spilka said. “This kind of experiential learning center, I believe, will help our kids think about, ‘Wow, this is something I would really like to go into’ - maybe not ultimately as an astronaut, but a scientist, a chemist, or biologist.”


Director Porro said the Center currently employs 11 University students as part-time workers.


She said, “I want to make sure that we offer our employment opportunities to our students.


“Hopefully, the work that we do also contributes to - it complements - the academic work that they do in the class,” added Porro.


Carlos Rodriguez, a senior environmental studies and sustainability major, is a STEM program facilitator at the Christa McAuliffe Center and a program coordinator for the PETM program.


Rodriguez said the upcoming PETM program will focus on solar farms and solar energy and the environmental implications for environmental justice communities.


He said, “Here, we really like to emphasize the fact that we're facilitators and not teachers, and we really emphasize that informal education, where we just don't want to teach the students and have them memorize or just recite certain words. We want them to be able to actually understand the topics in-depth and be able to have a broader understanding of the implications of all the things that we talked about.”


Rodriguez said the renovation “allows more of the public to be able to get a better understanding” of the purpose and the Center. 


He said, “These renovations really are just trying to get the word out there that this program and this Center is a place of learning and it's not just a place where you sit down and get lectured. It's a place where you can actually learn and facilitate that learning.”


Cesar Matos, a junior computer science major, is a junior program facilitator at the Christa McAuliffe Center and a program coordinator for the PETM program.


Matos said he visited the Center during his time as a student at the Christa McAuliffe Charter School. “It's quite exciting to see how multi-versatile the space is in comparison to how it was in the past.”


He said he hopes the renovation will “increase student curiosity” and their “ability” and “willingness” to learn.


Matos said his favorite renovation is the new Mission Control, specifically the spacecraft part.


He said, “I feel like every kid is going to be excited by the spacecraft.


“I can see Mission Control being used for much more than just the missions themselves,” Matos added.


He said he hopes to replicate role-playing scenarios in Mission Control, such as the final project from his course focused on climate change with Professor Lawrence McKenna, which is designed as a simulation of the United Nations.


Anthony Venturim, a senior computer science major, is a STEM program facilitator at the Christa McAuliffe Center.


Venturim said the facilitators run the mission simulations in Mission Control and the spacecraft, which he said is his favorite part of the renovation.


He said, “I didn't get the chance to see the old facility that we had here, but, well, the place is looking sharp.


“It's my first time doing the mission and all the facilitators are here for the first time as well. So we've been working hard, and we hope to see everything running smoothly,” Venturim added.


He said the spacecraft is “the most fancy place in here” - complete with robot arms and new monitors to run the mission sequences.


Venturim said, “My main goal is to ignite the passion for the kids to seek more information about the space and hopefully work with it someday.”


Ross Barros-Smith, the Center’s planetarium and media technology manager, said he is “responsible for the operation, upkeep, and development of our state-of-the-art digital planetarium system,” hosts events at the planetarium, and works with faculty on campus “to develop planetarium lessons on topics including astronomy, climate science, food and nutrition science, and multimedia arts.”


Barros-Smith said the Center was doing similar work with the previous planetarium, but “what's different following the renovation is that we have a wider horizon of imagination to expand our uses of the system.”


He said, “With the new planetarium, we're investigating new ways to expand our use of it. We continue to use it for astronomy, space exploration, and STEM programming.


“Recently, we began using it as a digital canvas for the arts,” Barros-Smith added. 


He said, “Another goal is to use it as an interactive data visualization tool. We'll soon be integrating GIS software with the system, with which we'll be able to interact with the same data used by environmental scientists, city planners, and really any other field that ever uses a map. I cannot begin to predict all the possibilities that will flow from this.


“One of the transformations we're enjoying is moving from a system where we ‘display’ content to one where we really explore things,” Barros-Smith added. 


Liv Dunleavy, a junior computer science major, helps facilitate the planetarium events alongside Sirjana Bhatta, a senior computer science major.


Dunleavy said the new “high-tech” renovations of the planetarium are amazing.


She said the former layout of the planetarium, with the projector in the middle, has now been changed to make it more accommodating and accessible.


Dunleavy said there are two projectors, one on each side of the planetarium, and the floor is filled with moveable chairs.


She said the planetarium is “beautiful to look at and mesmerizing and captivating.”


Dunleavy said the staff is able to clear out the chairs from the space and are considering new ways to use the space.


She said Barros-Smith told her and Bhatta that their goal is to “take something that we learned at the planetarium and apply it to our careers - our lives.”


Dunleavy said she hopes her fellow students experience the Center. “It’s so important that people can experience the wonders of a planetarium and just the Challenger Learning Center - have that opportunity to connect with space and science and technology together even if they're not a STEM major.”


She said clubs, organizations, or just groups of students have the opportunity to reserve the planetarium for activities. “If they've never seen space in a way that has been presented to them like the planetarium did, they'll now get to view that in a completely different experience and just take in a world that they've never seen before - a universe they've never seen before.”


She said, “I just encourage everyone to go just try the Challenger Learning Center and the planetarium if you can.


“Just come in - just ask around. We'll help you find your way in and then just enjoy it,” Dunleavy added.


Art and Music Professor Laura Osterweis, who specializes in teaching classes in graphic design and studio art, taught two sections of ARTS 213 “Time and Space” during the Fall 2023 semester.


The students from her classes created art that was displayed in the new planetarium.


Osterweis said the course teaches students art isn’t “just a rectangle” that hangs on walls.


“It can move and it can take place over a period of time,” she added.


Osterweis said she originally wanted her students to visit the planetarium because it aligned with the theme of the course.


She said, “When I was talking to Ross Barros, he told me what he could do for my class and show us a presentation in the planetarium. And then I said, ‘Well, what can we do for you if you're going to do this for us?’ And he said, ‘Well, I'd love it if you could make some art for the dome.


“That's how it kind of all came together,” Osterweis added.


She said her students “loved” the project.


Due to the timing of the course and the renovations, her students began working on their art before they visited the planetarium. Osterweis said, “Everybody was thrilled” when her students saw their art projected in the planetarium for the first time.


“People said it was the project of the semester,” she said.


Osterweis said her students are already adding more work to the planetarium, including a student whose independent study is focused on creating more artwork for the dome and another student who was paid to take photos during the Center’s grand reopening.


She said one of her students was asked to draw a portrait of Christa McAuliffe for the dome, which will be a “signature piece” of the planetarium.


Osterweis said she is teaching a section of ARTS 213 this semester and has already expanded on last semester’s project to include animations and voice-over aspects to the students’ artwork.


She said, “I feel like there's so many opportunities to teach in an interesting way” and hopes more of the Art and Music department will take advantage of the planetarium.


“I think it's a really great resource. I’d like to see more people use it,” Osterweis said.


David Ibbett, director of Multiverse Concert Series, presented his new song - “Carina” - which he composed and wrote to honor Christa - at the Center’s Day of Remembrance Jan. 28.


Ibbett said the Multiverse Concert Series, which recently celebrated its five-year anniversary, presents musical compositions for shows on astrophysics and space.


He said, “Space is for everyone and I just love being part of a Center that has that at its heart.”


Ibbett said space can inspire someone to be anything from an astronaut, a teacher, or an artist. “That’s something to strive for - something to inspire us to grow and to be better human beings - better to each other; better for the world.”


He said, “We want to be here performing music with visuals regularly in this really special, new planetarium so we can reach the students, young families, and adults.


“Music is for everyone and it can help to bring people into a field that might have been seen as overly technical. Space can be seen as just for engineers and astronauts, but absolutely not,” Ibbett added.


He said, the Center has been “making programs that try to embody that sentiment through arts and art that connects with science, and immerses people.


“We're just getting started. I hope there’s much more to come,” Ibbett added.


University President Nancy Niemi said she loves that the school is “embodying” the integrated science learning of the Center.


She said, “I also think that the Center is such a strong conduit between the community and Framingham State - and it has to be.


“I'm excited for the rededication of that and for the future vision of what the Center represents in terms of education,” she added.


Niemi said she hopes students will have “access to learning opportunities and technologies that are co-curricular” and can “complement the things they're learning in classes.”


She said, “We are the first Challenger Center in the country, along with the first school for teacher education in the country, and we're marrying that with education for science.


“We are a small school with a mighty, mighty vision - and I love that,” Niemi added.


Director Porro said, “I would love for people to come and work with us - people need to connect with us.


“We really want to engage with people,” she added.


For more information about the Christa McAuliffe Center, visit https://cm-center.org/ and follow their Instagram @christamcauliffecenter.


[Editor’s Note: Liv Dunleavy is a Staff Writer for The Gatepost.]

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