A quarter century after Christa McAuliffe died on the space shuttle Challenger, a new generation of students honored the teacher's legacy Thursday evening with a science fair held at her alma mater, Framingham State University.
"More than anything else, Christa was about teaching," said Mary Liscombe, executive director of the Christa McAuliffe Center for Education and Teaching Excellence, which is based on the campus. "Her story reinforces the message that anyone can live their dreams, and that message endures through teachers who inspire their students to learn."
The fair, which showcased the work of McAuliffe Regional Charter School's eighth-grade students, was the capstone of the center's memorial for McAuliffe and the six other crew members who died on Jan. 28, 1986.
Hundreds of people crowded into the McCarthy Center forum at Framingham State for the evening's events, which included short speeches by Liscombe and state Senator Karen Spilka.
"This is a bittersweet celebration," Spilka said. "Christa is an inspiration to us all, and it's great to see such a packed room. My thanks to all the students that participated. You are our future."
Grace Corrigan, McAuliffe's mother, was scheduled to appear, but was unable to attend.
The fair was conceived by Dan Anderson, McAuliffe Regional's eighth-grade science teacher. Despite his school being named after such a famous astronaut, Anderson said that until last year, he didn't know much about space.
"It wasn't on our curriculum. We focused on cells and genetics, and that's where my passion really was," Anderson said. "I didn't have as much genuine excitement for space science, and I think my students could tell that."
Luckily, Anderson had a solution: space camp. With the help of McAuliffe Regional's director, Kristin Harrison, Anderson applied for a grant from Fund For Teachers to spend a week at the Space Academy for Educators in Huntsville, Ala.
"Part of the grant was bringing some part of my experience back, and this fair was the way we decided to do it," Anderson said. "We have learned so much. The students at our school learn experientially, and they have interviewed space scientists from all over the world. I love space now!"
One student, Matthew Yaeger, wore a regulation NASA space suit to present his research on propulsion in space, and said he had wanted to be an astronaut since the second grade.
"It was a great project," said Yaeger, who collaborated with his friend Jacob Komissar. "We went to Worcester Polytechnic and talked to a lot of scientists. It was kind of cool, because I had all these ideas of how propelling space ships could work, and then I found out NASA had been thinking of the same things."
Another student, Caroline Boldt, said she didn't have much of an interest in space before she started her project on Pluto with her friend Shannon Pruyn.
"My favorite subject is biology, but when I grow up I want to do something in the arts," Boldt said. "Now I think I'll have to do pictures of space in my art."
The evening's events also included refreshments for guests, archival displays from the Christa McAuliffe collections, and performances at the Challenger Learning Center planetarium.
The student groups who participated in the fair put themselves in contention for a grand prize trip to space camp in the summer by writing short essays about what the project taught them. There will also be three runners-up, announced at McAuliffe Regional on Friday, who will receive autographed space suits.
Anderson said the grand prize winner would be announced as soon as all the essays were read.
Sarah Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.