The result of the surviving families’ collaboration with NASA, education experts and many others, was the creation of the first Challenger Learning Center, an interactive environment, allowing students to complete hands-on simulated space missions from a variety of control positions. Challenger Learning Centers have expanded to more than 40 nationwide locations, focusing on inspiring young students to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
The Challenger Learning Center of Northern Nevada (CLCNN) became the first certified Nevada location Tuesday, while celebrating the 28th anniversary of the Challenger shuttle launch, inside its new home, Sparks High School.
“You are going to see a draw in students and you’re also going to see a draw in businesses who say, ‘I want to be a part of this,’” said Stack, who has visited several Challenger centers previously. “Economically, it is going to pull people in. It’s also going to help bring in the peripheral support systems. Organizations outside the Challenger center will be looking to weigh in and help.”
Sparks High School Principal Kevin Carroll was excited to have the CLCNN move into a building previously used as the auto shop, and Sparks Mayor Geno Martini was on hand to declare Tuesday “Christa McAuliffe Day” before receiving a sneak peak at what the CLCNN will offer its students.
“When the first teacher was selected to be in space, the idea was that we had a desperate need for kids to be going into science and engineering,” said Paul McFarlane, lead flight director at the CLCNN. “As a nation, if we are going to succeed and prosper, and continue to explore and discover innovations, we are going to need to have our own people equipped to carry the baton and move forward.
“If we can play a role in preparing that next generation —which includes doctors and engineers — I think our mission is absolutely critical.”
The “arduous journey” to support and find a permanent home for the CLCNN began seven years ago when McFarlane finished a simulated mission at another Challenger center and was asked by a student participating, ‘why don’t we have one of these in Nevada?’
“In some ways it was kind of naive,” McFarlane said, “Because if I had any idea of how much fundraising and how much work it would take, I don’t know if I would have ever started in the first place.”
Coordinating donations and funds for the project during the rough economic downturn in northern Nevada posed a threat to McFarlane and his Board of Directors, but support from the cities of Reno and Sparks, the Nell J. Redfield Foundation, the Reno Air Racing Foundation, NV Energy, Sierra Nevada Corporation and many others made the dream became a reality.
“This is so much different than when I was here,” Mayor Martini joked as he toured Mission Control and the extensive Advanced Spaceflight Laboratory. “I am so glad Sparks High School was able to make this happen and I am very proud of the group of people behind this.”
Stack said he tried to get a Challenger center in his native Greeley, Colo. but was unable to find the support, and the state wound up building one in Colorado Springs. He said opening the first Nevada site is a testament to the “mental headset” of the region.
“You’ve got to be able to capture the imagination of local businesses, the adults in the community and the people in the school district,” he said. “If you don’t have help from that staff, it makes it extremely difficult.”
The new CLCNN places students in the roles of astronauts, engineers, doctors and more during each simulation, forcing the team to work together to correct mistakes, complete certain tasks and return home safely. Stack was one of many who worked on the first curriculum for the inaugural Challenger Learning Center in Houston, and he said students need to realize the role aerospace technology will play in the future.
“It is important for the kids here to know that no matter what they do, space exploration will be a part of their lives,” Stack said. “One of them just may be the first one to walk on Mars.”
Sparks High played a major role in the new CLCNN and its public preview as JROTC cadets raised a flag, formerly flown over the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., before unveiling a portrait dedicated to those who lost their lives in the Challenger shuttle tragedy. McFarlane said the official grand opening is forecasted for June in hopes of bringing Gov. Brian Sandoval, families of the Challenger mission and current NASA astronauts to town.
“Critical skills – cooperation, communication, critical thinking, problem solving – are important regardless of career,” McFarlane said. “You can get a college degree but if you’re not creative you may change your career 10 or 12 times.
“So often we don’t engage our young people’s imaginations, and I think a lot of times before kids can learn they need to want to learn – a program that provides them a context for learning like this that motivates, inspires and gives them the drive to go on to become engineers, is a great thing.”