A Passion for Space Brings Educator From Chile to the Lehigh Valley

Felipe Maldonado’s interest in space began during his childhood in Chile, when he watched NASA and other space programs on the Discovery Channel. By his teenage years, he became transfixed with news coverage of the Mars rovers Opportunity and Spirit, and his interest only continued to grow from there.

Today, the 33-year-old Maldonado is dedicated to sharing his passion for space and cosmology with others, and he has chosen the Lehigh Valley as the place to do it.

Maldonado is the newest educator to join the Da Vinci Science Center in Allentown, which has been bringing science to life and lives to science since 1992 through hands-on exhibits, programs, and partnerships. His focus will be to create and deliver programming in both English and Spanish, expanding the Science Center’s universe of learners.

“Ultimately, the goal of the Center is aligned with my own: to create, and foster the next generation of scientists and a more scientifically literate society,” he said.

Maldonado received his doctorate in physics from Florida State University, and during his studies there, he did some outreach work with students and discovered a passion for it. It’s that passion he has brought to the Da Vinci Center, where he hopes to spark in his students the same curiosity and interest he felt as a child.

“With any outreach program, you’re lucky if you get to see a child more than one time, for maybe an hour,” Maldonado said. “The goal for me is to give them an experience that in that one hour can convince the child to go home and google a scientific thing on their own, without me, without my prompt. If that child develops even a small interest in science in that one hour I had with him or her, that’s a victory, because that child is going to be a little more science savvy.”

Maldonado received a bachelor’s degree in astronomy at Universidad de Chile, where he developed a specific interest in cosmology, the science of the origin and development of the universe. He moved to the United States specifically for his studies at Florida State, with the intention of eventually returning to Chile.

But when the job opportunity became available at Da Vinci, Maldonado quickly developed an affection for the Lehigh Valley. He particularly loves the natural beauty of the region’s countryside and the rich history and culture of its towns and cities.

“I like the nature, the forests, the rolling hills, the countryside; it’s very beautiful here,” Maldonado said. “The people have all been very polite and pleasant to me, and the large Latin community makes me feel very welcome. I often see things that remind me of being back home.”

He will be delivering programming in both English and Spanish, and a priority for both the Da Vinci Science Center and Maldonado himself will be to specifically reach out to Spanish-speaking students and female students. A disproportionate number of college graduates with degrees in astronomy and physics are male, and Maldonado believes that could change if their interests in science were better nurtured at younger ages.

“At the Center, we’re making a conscious effort to speak to the community at large, here, not just boys and not just people who speak English,” he said, “A big part of reaching the Latin community in the Lehigh Valley is speaking Spanish, so it’s important to have a Spanish-speaking scientist talking to them here.”

Maldonado joins the Da Vinci Science Center’s STEAM Team, known for their expertise in designing and leading unforgettable experiences integrating Science, Technology, Engineering, Math and the Arts.

He is also working closely with his colleagues at the Science Center to expand programming to meet the expected demand when the new Da Vinci Science Center at PPL Pavilion opens in downtown Allentown in 2024.

That brand new, state-of-the-art science center will be a major draw for downtown Allentown. The 67,000-square-foot facility at Eighth and Hamilton streets will be three stories with over 30,000 SF of exhibit space, triple the space of its current Allentown facility. Visitors of all ages will be immersed in experiences ranging from exploring the inner workings of the human body to the interconnectivity of humans with the natural world and the innovation that exists at the intersection of both.

The STEAM Learning Center, which will serve as the home base for outreach programming, will feature over 9,000 square feet of classroom and flex space.