McAuliffe Center receives $5 million renovation grant from state


Maddison Behringer / THE GATEPOST


By Johan Perez

Staff Writer


Framingham State has received $5 million in funding from the Massachusetts Legislature to

“redesign and modernize the aging Christa McAuliffe Center,” according to a press release from Communications Director Dan Magazu.


The total cost of the redesign project is approximately $8 million, including $2 million from

American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding and $250,000 from the Massachusetts Cultural

Council Facilities Program, according to Magazu.


According to the McAuliffe Center’s website, the renovations will feature “state-of-the-art

technology and opportunities to reach more learners across the Commonwealth.”


President Nancy Niemi said, “The McAuliffe Center’s value has always been to be a STEM

resource for the communities we serve. As we grow into the future, the center will be focused on even greater opportunities to align the needs of Massachusetts employers with our capacity to educate a STEM workforce,” she said.


“It will be a place for younger children to have hands-on experience with life sciences, field

work, and other STEM activities so they can see themselves in the many roles needed by

employers in the MetroWest area,” Niemi added.


The center is host to a number of programs, including spaceship simulations for K-12 students, a fulldome planetarium, community events such as Science on State Street, and virtual space explorations through Zoom.


Bella Medeiros, a first-year early childhood education major, said it’s great that younger students can get this experience outside of their school. “They get to see what we’re seeing. I can’t wait to see the renovations,” she said.


Areas such as the Challenger Learning Center, a mission simulator for middle and high school

students established in 1994, are already being dismantled to prepare for the construction project.


Irene Porro, director of the McAuliffe Center, said ideally, they are aiming for construction to be finished by fall 2023, with a formal grand reopening in early 2024. “We want to be ready as soon as the [contractors] come in,” she said. “They literally have to tear down the walls … and it takes some time.”


Ross Barros-Smith, planetarium and media technology manager, said the center will still be

running several programs as effectively as possible while construction is underway. “We’re

hoping to keep the planetarium running through the rest of the calendar year.”


Barros-Smith added the center will continue to offer community stargazing and virtual missions through Zoom, in addition to programs featuring the physical Challenger Learning Center spacecraft so “participants off site can still go on a journey with us.”


Porro said the staff learned during the COVID-19 pandemic that a remote presence is important. “There are people who physically could not travel here - people who are elderly who used to come to our events that can’t come in person anymore. There are schools that maybe are close by, but cannot afford to travel.”


The planetarium is a space used by many parties - from K-12 school programs to professors for class presentations. Porro estimates the center hosts approximately 10,000 K-12 students a year, adding she believes the new center may be able to host as many as 15,000.


Porro said, “Even if the facility here is not available, we will keep running programs that don’t

require [them] to be right here - both virtual and through activities that we can run on campus

without being in this space.”


She added, “It allows us to reach people who usually wouldn’t even be able to come here

because it’s too far away. To have that as an available resource for people who otherwise cannot come in person is very important.”


Gerald Galgana, professor of astronomy, takes his classes to the planetarium “usually once or

twice every semester.”


The planetarium isn’t solely focused on space. “Instead of just displaying planets and stars, you can also look at just maps of the Earth and how the surface is changing,” he said. “It’s essentially a fulldome film of anywhere.”


Barros-Smith said, “A planetarium is not just for astronomy. We’re limited by our own

imagination.” While the center has already hosted a few non-science-related programs, the staff plans to offer the planetarium to faculty from every discipline.


“We could host [an] artist’s salon inside the planetarium and perhaps connect it to other work

going on here,” he said.


Barros-Smith added, “The planetarium is a space that we fill with ideas, and we know we do not have all the ideas right here at this table. That’s a lot of the value of outside engagement.”


Porro said, “This intersection of science, art, and culture at the planetarium is perfect. … It could be music and images presented on the dome. It could be plays where the actors are able to tell their stories and the planetarium can contribute to the show.”


A recent event hosted by the planetarium was the play “Young Nerds of Color,” which ties

together interviews with scientists from underrepresented backgrounds. This was part of a

collaboration with the Central School Theatre in Cambridge. There were several screenings from Oct. 17 through Oct. 21.


“The play is about scientists from underserved and underrepresented groups who speak about their own experience,” Porro said. On Oct. 19, another event was held featuring a panel of several BIPOC professors talking about their experiences.


The panel discussed themes from the play relating to current issues for marginalized people in STEM, including loneliness, code switching, the lie of science objectivity, challenges to feeling authentic, pressure to represent, and imposter syndrome, according to the event’s flyer.


“It’s part of our effort to support our equity, inclusion, and anti-racist efforts at FSU,” Porro said.


“We are very strongly supporting FSU to really work in making sure that everyone has proper

access and a full voice in this matter,” she added.


She said the program had been planned nearly a year in advance. “[This play is] coming at a very important time. This is really talking about not just people of color, but anyone who has been marginalized in the STEM environment.”


Porro said the redesigned center will make it possible to “increase services to underserved and underrepresented high school and college students and contribute to the formation of a diverse STEM workforce.”


This is part of the McAuliffe Center’s 25-year vision, which is outlined in a 50-page booklet.


According to the booklet, the center will aim to provide a more welcoming environment to first-time visitors, become a more open collaborative hub, and offer more programs in climate change education and sustainability awareness.


Jacob Sargent, a senior biology major, said he’s interested in the coming updates, but hopes the center could advertise more to students in general. “I knew it existed only because I saw it as a freshman once. I don’t know what I’d do there because I’ve never been told.”


Dylan O’Donovan, a sophomore business management major, said he recently transferred and is looking for more community events. “I’m new here and love checking out new stuff.”


Trevor Manyak, a senior communication, media, and performance major, said, “I’m intrigued. It’s definitely something that will attract more attention to the school.”


Porro said, “We cannot reach the vision for what we want to see in the center in 25 years if we can’t create the physical space to support an integrated, collaborative environment.”


She added, “Of course we will definitely maintain our focus on anything that is related to space science, but we will add a very strong focus on climate education and climate action.”


Concerning the center’s goals for climate change education, Porro said, “We want to contribute our work as an educational organization to help form the workforce that we will need in the green economy. We want to help Massachusetts reach those goals.”


She said the center will keep the subject of space as a central focus, but also develop strong

climate education programming at the college level, as well as locally.


“What is our community dealing with locally - not just here in Framingham and MetroWest, but

our community of students and young people who are going to inherit [the Earth?]” she asked.


“Approaching decisions from a social and cultural point of view, and [using] the science to

empower us to address the social inequities associated with climate” is important, Porro said.


“Climate change is not a science problem. Science is helping us understand that the problems are at an economic level, on a social level, and on a justice level,” she added.


The McAuliffe Center will continue to host events during the renovations for the foreseeable

future, according to the website schedule.


12 views0 comments