Thursday, January 28, 2010

January 28, 1986



Christa McAuliffe
(1948 – 1986)

Back in BC (before children) I was a teacher of technology. I had taken computer classes in high school, however, back in the 1970s we had counselors who still encouraged girls to go into traditional careers, like teaching, instead of engineering and computer programming. So, upon graduation I went into teaching. Fortunately, I went to Lesley College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which not only gave me the chance to hang around with MIT students (and marry one!), Lesley had a vision of teaching teachers to use computers in their classrooms.

I found this was quite timely. In 1982 Cambridge elementary school principals were being given PCs and no one knew what to do with them. No one even knew how to turn one on! After several student teaching experiences, principals heard that I was computer literate. Then they heard that I actually had lesson plans for students, and in-service workshops to teach teachers. I was so popular for teaching workshops my senior year, I had to farm out jobs I couldn’t fulfill to other undergraduates. Those were the days!

And then in 1984 President Ronald Reagan announced a “Teacher in Space Program” and I eagerly asked for the application. I was a graduate student living in New Hampshire and still commuting to Cambridge and the Lesley campus. I had no real classroom experience (just hours and hours of part time experience). Thus, I was disappointed to read that there was a minimum requirement of three years teaching experience to apply for the program. I put away the application, and that was that… but not the end of the story…

Finally I found a full time teaching position, integrating computers into a language arts program in a Massachusetts school system. I heard that a teacher in New Hampshire had won the spot on the space shuttle scheduled for early 1986. I was on the board of the NH-ACES (New Hampshire Association for Computer Education Statewide). We were busy trying to convince school boards and teachers that technology had a place in the classroom. Time passed and I almost forgot about the Teacher in Space.

Before I knew it, it was launch day for local teacher Christa McAuliffe, January 28, 1986. I had finished teaching a computer class at a junior high, and I ran back to the high school for a meeting with the superintendent. When I got to the central office, everyone was watching a TV in the corner. Instead of a meeting, we watched the space shuttle Challenger fall from the sky. I was glad I hadn’t stayed to watch it with the kids at the junior high school. We all wept.

Right after school I had to drive to Concord, New Hampshire for a NH-ACES meeting. I knew that a board member was the principal of the Kimball School where we usually met, and he had a class of third grade students at the launch at Cape Canaveral. One of them was Scott, Christa’s little boy. Upon arriving at the Kimball School parking lot, I was met by an official looking man dressed in black, with an earpiece and a badge. He told me the school was cordoned off to visitors and the meeting had been moved to another school in Concord. I later learned that the third graders were being rushed back from Florida to the Kimball School at that same time as our meeting.

I remember driving home on that winter night, after the meeting. On January 28, 1986 the clear, dark sky was bright with stars and the radio was full of reports from NASA. I watched to see if a school bus full of third graders was driving north as I drove south towards Londonderry. It seemed to be a very long drive home.

We dedicated our next NH-ACES conference to Christa, and her husband Steven McAuliffe was our keynote speaker. Efforts went into building a planetarium in Concord, in her honor, and it is now a New Hampshire landmark attraction. Steven became a judge, son Scott grew up to be a teacher, too, of marine biology, and a younger daughter, I heard, was studying early childhood education.

There has been a Christa McAuliffe Technology Conference every year now in New Hampshire since 1986. The conference motto is still a quote from Christa: “I touch the future, I teach.” NH-ACES are no longer a group, since we obviously no longer have to convince schools to use computers. The new group is called NHSTE (the NH branch of the International Society for Technology in Education). I haven’t been involved since my daughter was born and I “retired” from the classroom.

I never met Christa, but I remember her story… It is now part of history. Her legacy lives on through her memory, through the New Hampshire programs in her honor, and through her children.


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Sharon Christa Corrigan, daughter of Edward Christopher Corrigan and Grace Mary George, b. 2 September 1948 in Boston, Massachusetts, died 28 January 1986 off Cape Canaveral, Florida, buried at Blossom Hill Cemetery, Concord, New Hampshire; married in 1970 to Steven J. McAuliffe, two children: Scott and Caroline. Her unusual, pretty gravestone may be seen at www.findagrave.com http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GSln=mcauliffe&GSfn=christa&GSbyrel=all&GSdyrel=all&GSob=n&GRid=1601&df=all&

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Helpful websites:

McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, Concord, New Hampshire http://www.starhop.com/

McAuliffe Technology Conference http://www.nhcmtc.org/

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Copyright 2010, Heather Wilkinson Rojo

4 comments:

  1. What a tragic event, and for you living rather close to Concord, and to be a teacher as well. I appreciated reading your recollections of that horrible day.
    I've never been to the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, one of these I need to get there.

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  2. Wow, I remember I was in the 5th grade in Lowell MA. We watched it on TV. We were just getting TVs and PCs in the classroom at that time. I couldn't believe it and it was so close to home. I moved to NH the following year...

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  3. I remember this day; I was in 4th grade. We weren't allowed to watch the broadcast but the 6th grade was, and I remember being so jealous. We were all excited about learning from a teacher in space. When our teacher told the class, I remember how she could barely contain her tears as she struggled to explain what happened to the shuttle. 2 years later I attended a newly built school: S. Christa McAuliffe Elementary School in Germantown Maryland. The highlight of my 6th grade year was playing a flute solo at the dedication of the school with her parents in attendance.

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  4. Oh, Heather, what a beautiful and touching tribute. Most of us will never forget that day as we stood with dropped jaws, not understanding. Thank you so much for posting this. It brought a tear to my eye.

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