This story was originally published in the April/May 2015 issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
“They were doing STEM before STEM was cool,” says a grinning County Mayor Jim Coppinger about the Challenger Learning Center. Coppinger was one of several Chattanooga notables to give remarks at a celebratory event held recently for the UTC Challenger STEM Learning Center.
“Since opening 20 years ago, our Challenger Center has brought the excitement of science and math to life for more than 160,000 elementary and middle school students from around the region,” says UTC Chancellor Steve Angle. Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) have been integrated into the mission of the 20-year-old Challenger Learning Center in Chattanooga, the first of its kind to be built on a college campus.
Dr. June Scobee Rogers, widow of Challenger Space Shuttle Commander Dick Scobee, is the founding Chairperson for the National Challenger Center for Space Science Education in Washington D.C. She is also a Chattanooga resident who is actively engaged in her community.
“The first 20 centers were built at museums of science—now most are located on college campuses,” says Dr. Rogers. Named for the Space Shuttle Challenger, on a mission that began and ended on January 28, 1986, the first Challenger Learning Center opened in Houston, Texas in 1988. The original mission of the Space Shuttle Challenger was to “explore, discover, and teach.” Proponents say that mission continues through the work of each center. Today there are 44 Centers in the United States, Canada, South Korea and the United Kingdom, with more in the planning stages. The centers have interacted with over four million students to date.
“The research is very clear on this issue,” says Perry Story, director of the Challenger STEM Learning Center. “We need to engage students as early as possible in their educational development to curb their potential hesitation to choose STEM-related courses and career fields. At the Challenger Center we provide a positive educational experience that will stay with them for a lifetime.”
The Challenger STEM Learning Center comes under the auspices of Dr. Valerie Rutledge, dean of the College of Health, Education and Professional Studies at UTC. “This partnership provides many opportunities to be active in and at the forefront of STEM education,” says Dr. Rutledge. “We also use this facility to enhance the experiences of K-12 students, prospective teacher candidates and as an experiential learning setting for workshops, professional development and team building activities.” The UTC/Challenger partnership reaches students and several hundred teachers each year in a service area that includes Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina.
“We were on the cutting edge 20 years ago,” says Dr. Rogers. “But, we keep learning, too.” In 2004, new programs were developed to serve young students. Then in 2007, the Center added three new classrooms—the Congressman Zach Wamp Classroom of Technology, the Clarence Harris Foundation Classroom of Science and the Dr. Bernard Benson Classroom of Exploration. The Center must keep pace with today’s mercurial technology.
“With recent funding from the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga and Volkswagen, planning has begun for the next generation of STEM labs to include coding and 3-D printing,” says Storey. That means the flight director and her team could write or alter the software or reproduce a necessary part that may have malfunctioned on a shuttle mission simulation. It opens up many new possibilities for problem solving.
These programs and virtual missions are offered for grades K-9. There are also STEM summer camps and professional development programs for teachers that may include team-building and planning retreats.
Bright School science teacher Kitty McMillan first took her 6th grade students to the Challenger Centre almost 15 years ago and has participated in many professional development workshops over the years. “The thing that blows me away is many of these programs are offered free of charge, they include materials and you get credit for them,” says McMillan of the workshops designed for teachers.
Public schools can send 6th graders for as little as it costs to run the bus. Other grades pay for a day in the space shuttle. The innovative Micronaut program serves younger students ages five to seven.
McMillan now brings science students as early as third grade to the center for customized missions. She gets the materials ahead of time so she can work with students before the day of the mission to prepare them.
“The simulations on the mini missions teach the children to work as a team, read and follow directions and collect data,” she says. Fourth grade missions add the element of communicating with mission control and fine-tuning listening skills. According to McMillan, by the time students are in 5th grade they are confident enough to take ownership of the process. “The Challenger Center is a treasure in Chattanooga.”
Learn more at challenger.org
Story by Deborah Petticord
Photos courtesy of UTC Challenger STEM Learning Center