Blogs  |  11.23.2021

Coffee & Conversations: Paving the Way in STEM

Challenger Center

We have sprinkled a variety of virtual events throughout Challenger Center’s 35th anniversary to celebrate the exciting milestone and all those who helped us get here. Recently, former NASA Astronauts, educators, and longtime Challenger Center supporters, Barbara Morgan and Dorothy (Dottie) Metcalf-Lindenberger joined us for a special virtual event. Coffee & Conversations: Paving the Way for Women in STEM was a discussion moderated by Challenger Center’s VP, Education, Denise Kopecky, and focused on a variety of topics ranging from Dottie and Barbara’s favorite experiences in space, to their memories as teachers, and how we can empower more women to see a future in STEM.

Barbara kicked the discussion off with a memory of watching a huge thunderstorm on Earth from the International Space Station that spanned almost the entirety of the Indian Ocean. “Never trust a weatherman again when they say ‘isolated thunderstorms,’ I don’t believe there’s any such thing,” she said. “Thunderstorms are part of these enormous systems, and it reminds me that we’re all connected and that we have so much positive energy to share with one another.”

This event truly showcased the power of the Challenger Center network – over 30 guests participated from every corner of the world including the United States, Canada, London, India, and Nepal. Several students and future astronauts joined, eager to hear Dottie and Barbara’s thoughts on both life in space and the future of STEM education.

As teachers before astronauts, it’s interesting to discover why and how Dottie and Barbara began their NASA careers. Dottie shared that she was teaching high school science in Vancouver, Washington, and created an astronomy class to engage and pique students’ curiosity in science. “We know that we can get students to learn when they’re inspired by the stars,” she said. As she was teaching about human spaceflight, a student asked how astronauts use the restroom in space – and at the time, Dottie wasn’t exactly sure. “As an educator, it’s so important to validate every student’s question. To let them know their question matters, and it engages our own curiosity as well.” In her search to learn more about the living quarters on the International Space Station, she discovered the astronaut application on NASA’s website and immediately applied. The rest – including 362 hours in space – is history.

Barbara’s space career and connection to Challenger Center is personal, as she trained as Christa McAuliffe’s back-up for the Teacher-in-Space program. “Christa, Dick, Mike, Judy, El, Ron, and Greg are, to this day, on my shoulder every single day. I carry what I learned from them with me,” said Barbara.

After the Challenger tragedy in 1986, Barbara assumed Teacher-in-Space duties and spent several years working with NASA and NSF on a variety of education programs. Barbara was selected as a Mission Specialist in 1998 and served in the Astronaut Office CAPCOM Branch, working in Mission Control as prime communicator with on-orbit crews. She has logged over 305 hours in space, and completed her first space flight in 2007 as a mission specialist on the crew of STS-118, an assembly mission to the International Space Station.

After their careers at NASA, education and the Challenger legacy remained very important to Barbara and Dottie. Both have served on Challenger Center’s Board of Directors and have shared invaluable guidance and support with the organization over the last 35 years. On where she sees Challenger Center’s next 35 years, Barbara said, “35 years to me it seems like just yesterday, but when I think about 35 years into the future…my dream would be that Challenger Center always remains at the cutting edge, is always nimble and creative, and is able to provide top education programs. I hope and know that Christa, Dick, Mike, Judy, El, Ron, and Greg…they’re smiling on us now, and that in 35 years, their smiles will be even bigger.”

To kick-off the live Q&A with the audience, former Challenger Center Board Member Alan Salisbury and his wife Florence asked about updates on Challenger Center’s expansion into digital programs.

Dottie jumped in to share her experience in the development of our Virtual Missions. In the digital programs led by our trained Flight Directors, 5th-8th grade students work virtually with their classmates to solve problems during these online space missions. Dottie makes several appearances in Destination Mars and leads students through the mission. To date, Destination Mars and Destination Moon have been delivered to 12,000 students.

These Virtual Missions allow Challenger Center to deliver our engaging and inspiring STEM programs to students no matter where they’re learning – at home, in the classroom, or at Centers – helping us reach as many students as possible.

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