[How I Work] Ground control for an educational (space) mission

Published on: Jan 30, 2017


Since 2015, Erin Tyree has been Lead Flight Director at the Challenger Learning Center-St. Louis, where she and her teammates plan and execute simulated space missions for kids. Started to honor the astronauts lost in the Challenger disaster, the national network of Challenger Learning Centers carries on the work that crew began: bringing the science and wonder of space exploration to students, educators, and the public at large, and inspiring a new generation of innovators.

My role, the short version: I like to describe the job as one part astronaut, one part educator—though “program coordinator” is also accurate.

My role, the long version: Most of my work involves managing the simulated space missions we facilitate: working with teachers to discuss the options and how to best serve their students, creating custom programs, and training staff. I’m also involved in the hiring process. Because our full-time staff is just five people, we each take on various extra jobs: I enjoy writing, so I help with the website and social media, draft letters and invitations, work on the newsletter, and volunteer for other communications tasks.

One of my proudest moments: A teacher emailed us a couple days before she brought in her class to make sure we could include a student who would be Skyping in from an out-of-state hospital where he was receiving medical treatment. I talked with my coworkers, and we created a job for him by combining snippets of already-existing roles and reorganizing the material we give our students. He ended up serving an integral part of the mission, rather than just watching. It was a really good project for us, the student really enjoyed it, and his mom and his teacher were both really appreciative, too.


Most fun part of my job: I most enjoy the chance be creative, coming up with new programs or ways to do things: new activities for professional development, new team activities, or better ways to communicate with students—like a flashier way to explain moon phases, or a new presentation for our portable planetarium.

Most challenging part of my job: Managing our part-time staff is a bit of a balancing act. We have fabulous people, and I enjoy supervising them, but scheduling can be tough. I’m always learning more about time management and prioritizing, especially when there’s so much to do and it’s all so important.

How I got here: As a physics major, I enjoyed working in the lab, but realized that what I liked most was explaining science to others. I tried classroom teaching through Teach For America, but realized it was not for me—I enjoyed the teaching part, but not the formal classroom experience. That’s how I got into the informal education arena, and the nonprofit world: I spent the next four years as an informal educator at a science museum, then went to grad school to study science education. That combination of education and practical experience with science outreach gave me a great foundation for the position, even though it does not have any specific degree requirements.

Who best fits this position: In general, the informal science education field pulls in people from all over the place, which I really like. I’ve worked people who have majored in math, anthropology, music education, and more. Problem-solving skills and an appreciation of childlike wonder are the most common traits. Talking to people in this kind of job, what I find is that it’s a field most of us didn’t know existed, or didn’t consider when we started college, but is a really satisfying area to be in.

How the organization supports me: My biggest motivators are the capable, hardworking people I work with. We’re a pretty creative bunch, we all approach things in a problem-solving, brainstorming way, and our boss gives us quite a bit of autonomy—she’s a great manager, and has helped me with the managerial side of my job, but leaves the science to us. It makes a big difference only having to worry about pulling my weight, rather than everyone else’s.



The Challenger Learning Center-St. Louis, part of a national network started by the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, provides hands-on programs that emphasize teamwork and creative problem-solving, spark interest in science and engineering, and equip educators to help student become innovative, lifelong learners. You can follow them on Facebook and Twitter.





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