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McAuliffe Center gets $200k lift

McAuliffe Center flight director Elsa Oberg (center) assists Athol teacher Dakotah Eaton during a 2010 training session. McAuliffe Center flight director Elsa Oberg (center) assists Athol teacher Dakotah Eaton during a 2010 training session. (suzanne kreiter/globe staff/file)
By Lisa Kocian
Globe Staff / July 22, 2012
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The Christa McAuliffe Center at Framingham State University scored $200,000 in the recently approved state budget for a new projector for the school’s planetarium, which is being replaced by a state-of-the-art facility.

The center’s projector is about 40 years old, and such dated technology “doesn’t cut it today,” said Mary Liscombe, director of the McAuliffe Center. While the current projector allows students to look at a simulation of the night sky, the new one will be able to take them on a journey through outer space, where they can view galaxies and other phenomena as if they were space travelers, she said.

“It’s going to be really quite exciting,” said Liscombe.

The McAuliffe Center, which opened in 1986, seeks to be a resource for educators. It is named in honor of Framingham State’s most famous graduate, teacher Christa McAuliffe, who died in the space shuttle Challenger disaster the same year.

Some 12,000 middle school students visit every school year. In addition to the planetarium, student “crew members” experience a simulated space mission inside the Challenger Learning Center, after weeks of classroom preparation beforehand.

“I think that the planetarium, and the entire center, is such a unique and wondrous place,” said state Senator Karen Spilka, who filed the budget amendment asking for the $200,000. “It’s really a terrific opportunity for all these thousands of kids from across the state to come and experience something they can’t experience anywhere else in the state.”

Spilka, a member of Governor Deval Patrick’s STEM Advisory Council, said it also ties intothe effort to better educate students in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Those subjects are seen as a priority because 80 percent of jobs created in the next decade will require math and science skills, according to the council’s website, and those jobs pay better and are more secure than many others during economic downturns.

The existing planetarium is being torn down to make room for new science labs as part of a $65 million science center project now underway, according to Dale Hamel, executive vice president at Framingham State.

The new $3.5 million planetarium is being built next to the McAuliffe Center because most of its use is through the center, he said.

The new projector will allow for a significant expansion in programming because now everything must be created by center staff, but with the new technology, the center can borrow programs created for other planetariums.

“We’ll be able to use this facility much more,” said Hamel.

Although the center caters to teachers and their students, Liscombe said, she hopes to offer some public programs in the new planetarium, which is scheduled to be completed in October. (The new projector won’t be on line until January, she added.)

The center stays busy all summer. Recent programs have examined space weather, climate change, and science and literacy.

Last week there were teachers and students at the center learning about, among other things, robotics, said Liscombe. A NASA representative was on hand to talk about the rover Curiosity, which is scheduled to land on Mars early next month.

The center can look forward to a stronger relationship with NASA, with Framingham State named last year as a NASA Educator Resource Center. There are about 60 in the country.

The new projector will help the center further tailor programs to the needs of teachers, said Liscombe. So if a teacher is having a hard time with a certain topic, the center will have another tool available, she said.

“We’re always trying to teach teachers new ways of teaching new things.”

Lisa Kocian can be reached at lkocian@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeLisaKocian.

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