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Mission accomplished: A lifelong dream comes true for retired teacher


Photo by Ilene Perlman.

Pat Berlandi indulges her love of space and teaching as flight director for the Christa McAuliffe Challenger Learning Center.

GROWING UP in the 1960s, Pat Berlandi was fascinated by weather and space. “I wanted to be a meteorologist for NASA,” says Berlandi, but her career choice was “soundly and roundly discouraged because I was a girl.”

It was different for women then, she says.

So instead of taking up meteorology, Berlandi became a music and geography teacher in the Boston Public Schools, where she taught for 35 years. 

Berlandi never forgot her childhood dream, however, and a chance meeting in 2006 opened the door for her to pursue that dream. She was attending her college reunion at Framingham State University when she ran into Mary Liscombe, the director of the Christa McAuliffe Challenger Learning Center at the university. “I told her that I was retiring, and she said I might have a mission for you,” Berlandi recalls. The retired Boston Teachers Union member accepted without hesitation. 

The “mission” allows Berlandi to indulge her love of space, science and teaching. She spends two days a week as a “flight director” leading groups of middle school students on simulated space flights to Mars at the McAuliffe Center. The students are assigned to Mars Control, which is a mockup of NASA’s Mission Control Center, or to a replica of a space station interior.

“I get to dress up in a real blue NASA jumpsuit,” says Berlandi, who acts as a facilitator for the missions. “The students get the feel of going into space, and it gives them a chance to use skills like decision-making, problem-solving, communications and teamwork. Halfway through the exercise, the students trade missions. 

“Seeing the students get so excited about learning and science is a real pleasure,” says Berlandi. And she feels especially encouraged for the girls who take part in the program. “Things are so much different for girls today. No one would ever say to a girl, ‘you can’t do that.’ ”

Working at the McAuliffe Center has reconnected Berlandi to the world of teaching. “I always loved being with the kids. This is just like another teaching job, and I love it.” 

Her work at the space center is made all the more special because Berlandi graduated from Framingham State with Christa McAuliffe in 1970. McAuliffe, who was also a teacher in Concord, N.H., traveled aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 as a part of the Teacher in Space Project. She died along with six other crew members when the shuttle exploded just after takeoff.

The connection makes Berlandi feel as if she’s come full circle. “This is what I’ve always wanted to do, and it allows me to continue to bring Christa’s mission forward.”

Reprinted from the May/June 2013 issue of American Teacher.