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Gatepost Interview: Irene Porro – Director of McAuliffe Center for Integrated Science Learning

By Ashlyn Kelly


What is your professional and educational background?


I am a scientist by training. I’m actually an astrophysicist. I worked as a researcher in space science for a few years. Then, I also started doing some outreach work and I realized that that was something very important. And so, gradually, I took on more work in education and outreach, and I finally got to a point when I realized, OK, this is becoming a real profession for me and a real job, so I decided to move full time to education and outreach.


What brought you to Framingham State?


As a matter of fact I just celebrated my seventh anniversary [on April 1]. I had been working in science education and outreach for many years, mostly at MIT and the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, but at that point, the position here for the director of the Christa McAuliffe Center became available. It was very interesting so I decided to apply for this position. ... I really wanted to be able to work in an environment like a state university, and also the opportunity to have a facility where people will visit regularly. In the past, I used to be planning programs that could be run at other facilities, directly in schools or after school centers. We would also do programs on site, but we didn’t have a permanent facility like the McAuliffe Center. So again, it was a very interesting challenge and an opportunity to potentially become a director of the McAuliffe Center and so I jumped on the opportunity.


What is your role at FSU and what does your job entail?


The Christa McAuliffe Center, first of all, is a physical facility on the campus of Framingham State, where we have two main areas – a Challenger Learning Center, where students, mostly middle and high school students, come in and simulate, in person, a space mission. So we have a room that is called Mission Control and there is another room that represents a spacecraft. Students engage in role play, and they spend a couple of hours simulating a space mission. The other main physical space is actually the Framingham State Planetarium, where students – and not just K-12 students – college students, and the general public come and participate in a wide range of learning programs, planetarium shows and all kinds of activities. ... So the center is again a physical presence, but also we are a team of people that create educational programs that can be shared not just at our center, but within schools and after-school programs. We are part of a collaboration to promote quality science education in the MetroWest region and beyond. So it’s really, when I talk and think about the McAuliffe Center, I really think about it as a catalyst for collaboration in the field of science education. It doesn’t have to be in a formal context of schooling. It could be for all the lifelong learners and for adults.


How has your job changed due to COVID-19?


My job changed in some aspects really dramatically and in other aspects didn’t change. As a director, my job is to make sure that we keep offering resources that people can use to learn and engage in science and have a good time with science activities or immersive experiences. So, from that point of view, making sure that [offering resources] happens, making sure that we have the funding to do that, and keep reaching out to build collaborations or relationships hasn’t changed. What changed dramatically is that we had to offer all our programs online instead of offering them in person. And I’m very happy and proud, I have to say that as of today, we are able to offer mission simulations virtually. We’re able to offer all kinds of astronomy programs and explorations online. ... Now one thing I want to say that is important for me is, in a way, thanks to the pandemic – I wish we didn’t have to experience this to do this work – but thanks to the pandemic, the McAuliffe Center has developed all these online resources. We’re looking forward to going back in person, but the online resources will not go away. We’ll now be able to offer online and in-person activities for all our audiences in whatever way is easier for them.


What do you like most about your work?


I think it’s really this idea of building something new that didn’t exist before – not because I created it from scratch but because I brought together a group of people with different expertise but they have the same kind of passion and same kind of vision. I’m very passionate about science, but really, everything that connects to science. I’m very passionate about interdisciplinary activities. And so [I do anything that I can] ... to present science in a way that is accessible and interesting to people with different backgrounds, different interests because we all can enjoy what science has to offer as long as it’s presented to us in a way that is compatible with our personality and our interests.


What would students be surprised to know about you?


I studied philosophy for three years when I was in high school. I always loved this kind of topic – history and philosophy is something that I really always enjoy, and understanding philosophy better is really what made me want to be a scientist even more. And so sometimes people don’t see the connection, but it is really right there. ... I’m also a person that not only loves the arts, but it’s one of my identities. I have a dancer identity. I’ve never been a professional dancer, but I studied dance and I love dance and I keep doing it on my own. Yes, I’m a scientist – I never wore a white lab coat in my life. You don’t need to. But I wore ballet slippers a lot.


What is your number one piece of advice to students?


Don’t limit yourself to that field or to that discipline. Expose yourself to ... other fields and knowledge, even when you’re uncomfortable. Go to those areas where you feel a little bit uncomfortable ... because when we are uncomfortable is where we really learn. ... And you will see that not only you become more comfortable with other disciplines, but also enjoy doing your work more.

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