Challenger Learning Centers are places of inspiration and discovery where students take on the roles of astronauts and mission controllers to fly simulated space flight missions. Southeastern Challenger Learning Centers include 11 locations — Alabama, Florida (three centers), Georgia, Kentucky (two centers), South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia serving nearly 1,500 schools in those states, plus additional schools in Mississippi and North Carolina.
Far more than field trips, Challenger Learning Center missions are deeply grounded learning experiences that engage students, transforming them into scientists, engineers, or researchers where they solve real-life challenges. And each center is a place that not only prepares students for future careers, but also teaches them about the legacy of our earlier space programs, from Alan Shepard’s Mercury flight in 1961 to the Moon landings of the 1960s and beyond.
Founded by the families of the Challenger astronauts lost aboard the space shuttle in 1986, Challenger Center for Space Science Education has its headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia and its heart in the communities where Challenger Learning Centers are located.
This February, the Challenger Learning Center in Paducah, Kentucky welcomed its 50,000th student. “We are over the moon that we have touched the lives of 50,000 school students in the local area,” said Mellisa Duncan, Challenger Learning Center Executive Director. “By continuing the mission of the Challenger crew, the Center has been the start of many students pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math,” she added.
Located on the campus of West Kentucky Community and Technical College, the Paducah Learning Center incorporates history into its curriculum by relating simulated mission scenarios to past exploration missions such as the Mars rovers, Apollo and Stardust. In addition to school missions, the Center conducts other programming such as summer camps, scouting workshops, e-Missions, and professional development for area teachers. In summer camps the Center goes more in depth into space history by introducing the fathers of rocketry, such as Robert Goddard and Wernher Von Braun, among other topics. Paducah and many other Challenger Learning Centers also have temporary and permanent NASA exhibits on loan.
“The history of the space shuttle program is of particular importance to our mission and to our hundreds of staff members and the thousands of affiliated teachers that work with our centers across our nation. Our Rendezvous with a Comet mission focuses on part of Challenger’s historic mission in 1986. Our Return to the Moon mission has its legacy in our nation’s Apollo program in which humans traveled to the moon for the first time,” said Rita Karl, Challenger Center’s Director of Education.
Reports such as “Rising above the Gathering Storm” warn that the United States needs to make a greater investment in STEM education if we are to maintain and increase the skilled workforce needed in the 21st century. Challenger Learning Centers engage large numbers of underrepresented groups in STEM fields and reach a broad and diverse group of affiliated schools that represent thousands of underserved and minority populations.
Challenger Center’s pre-mission preparation and post-mission debriefing lessons also address the real-life 21st century workforce skills of teamwork, problem-solving, decision-making and communication.
Challenger Center’s unique relationship over the last two decades in promoting NASA’s mission and informing STEM education prepare its centers to be premiere institutions for STEM teaching and learning. As Challenger Center embarks on its 25th anniversary year of education, inspiration, and public outreach, its centers are committed to reaching more students and teachers than ever before.