Challenger’s mission

A space simulation center at Shawnee aims to attract students

A group of sixth-graders from the Brown School squeal as they enter into a dark capsule. Around the shell of this tight space packed with excitable little bodies, a door swings open to reveal a brightly lit, almost clinical-feeling room that for the next few hours will simulate a space shuttle. Greenwich Mean Time, the global time standard used in space, ticks off on a screen. Robotic arms and keyboards entice students as they scatter to their designated stations.

OK, astronauts, put on your blue vests and have a seat on the stool,” says a Challenger Learning Center teacher zipped into a sky blue NASA-inspired jumpsuit.

About a dozen kids are split into different shuttle teams: life support, a probe team and a communications director who must relay messages from “mission control.” In a nearby room, another group simulates ground support for this middle school mission to the moon.

“Mission control, we’re ready for takeoff,” says a smiling girl gripping a microphone.

“We are ready for lift off as well. Good luck astronauts,” a voice from an overhead intercom confirms.

With that, the countdown is on: 10, 9, 8 …

All eyes fix on a TV screen as the roar of a videotaped takeoff scratches against speakers.

The Challenger Learning Center at Shawnee is one of 48 centers around the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and South Korea that, according to Challenger Learning Center’s website, takes 400,000 kids on simulated space missions every year.

NASA’s human spaceflight may be in question with the end of its shuttle program, but the centers keep that era alive. They started 25 years ago as a tribute to the Challenger shuttle disaster in 1986. The seven-member crew included the first teacher sent to explore space.

In Jefferson County Public Schools, sixth-graders study space science, making them the target audience. Two teachers employed at the center integrate lessons into the field trip. For that reason, the experience has been touted as a great example of “STEM” education, an integration of science, technology, engineering and math that’s currently a strong focus in public education.

For the Academy at Shawnee, there’s pride in hosting the center. Its principal, Keith Look, hopes young visitors will take away an interest in space and flight, therefore making Shawnee a possible next step. The high school located on West Market is an aerospace magnet. It’s in the midst of a turnaround effort after longtime struggles to meet federal education benchmarks. Attracting students who may not otherwise consider Shawnee could help build on test score gains made over the last few years.

“Sure, we hope that by servicing a middle grades population that we can attract them back to summer camps and high school,” Look says.

Shawnee’s Challenger Learning center opened one year ago. In 2009, the JCPS school board agreed to pay $280,000 for the center that had been located in Radcliff. The city could no longer afford to keep it open and put it up for sale.

Will Vandemeer, the school’s magnet coordinator, helped convince the school board that the center was a natural fit for the Academy at Shawnee. Not only were Shawnee’s aviation, flight and maintenance programs in alignment with Challenger’s mission, the school was also set to become one of three engineering-themed high schools that would emphasize STEM curriculum.

Vandemeer admits the first year hasn’t been easy. Over the summer, one of the original teachers who helped open the center retired. The other died unexpectedly. So the center had to quickly find and train new teachers.

On top of that, the Challenger Learning Center requires effective marketing so it can recruit field trips, generating enough money to sustain. These are ventures for people skilled at writing business plans, not education plans.

“JCPS has taken on a business is what it amounts to,” Vandemeer says. “We’re plowing a lot of new ground. Everyone’s interested in making sure we succeed.”

With two teachers on staff, the center has had to work through union agreements that may make it tricky for teachers to man weekend or other after-hours field trips.

Then there’s the goal of making enough money to stay self-sufficient. JCPS has committed an operating budget of about $254,000 for the Challenger Learning Center, with the expectation that the center will bring in enough money to reimburse the funds.

In its first year, 92 trips were booked. If they can attract 120 every year, Vandemeer says the center will be self-sufficient.

“We’re getting close,” he says.

General Electric has committed to covering the $500 cost of the field trip for JCPS schools that may not have the extra money to spend. And the center has successfully booked trips from Catholic and private schools, as well as one corporation, Genentech, a biotechnology firm, for a team-building event.

Keith Look says few Challenger Learning Centers are profitable. Those that are have more private donations and public money coming in. Still, he says success at Shawnee’s center shouldn’t be based solely on profitability.

In the last year, Shawnee students comprised one of 16 teams in the United States to place an experiment on the Shuttle Endeavor. The school also recently secured a partnership with the University of Kentucky to be the official JCPS launch site for space-related experiments.

“No one would ever be able to show the direct link of Challenger creating those or other opportunities,” Look says. “But absolutely it’s created the conditions to do more. It’s like venture capital.”

The next year will be critical for Shawnee’s Challenger Learning Center. Now that teachers have seen what it has to offer, will they return with a new set of students?

Ideally, the center will draw schools from all over Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio, as that was the same clientele the center served when it was based in Radcliff. Look says that’s an achievement in itself. West Market doesn’t have the galleries and attractions of downtown. Look believes the Challenger Learning Center is a start, saying, “We have created a museum piece that anchors the West End corridor.”