It’s fifth period. What would you rather do—crack open your science book, or plan a trip to Venus? Challenger Center President and CEO Vance Ablott directs a variety of programs that present science concepts on a canvas that is literally infinite.
What is the mission of Challenger Center?
Our organization was originally created by the families of the tragic 1986 Challenger space flight in an effort to create a window into the lives of their loved ones. They wanted students to understand what drove those people to want to explore the world around them. We develop educational materials that use simulation as a tool and that use space as a theme to engage students in the learning process. As a result, when students are learning about acids or bases, or about batteries, bulbs, and circuits, or about the size and scale of the universe, they are doing it in a context that is more engaging than simply reading a textbook.
Would you describe some of your materials and projects?
We are probably best known for our network of 43 Challenger Learning Centers, which are located across the United States, Canada, and in the United Kingdom. They are true space simulation classrooms, where one-half of the class is on “Mission Control” and the other half is on board a “space station”. The students work collaboratively to solve problems, collect data, analyze the data, and make decisions. The focus is on skills that are required in life—teamwork, communication, and cooperation.
We also have a host of classroom resources for teachers who may not be able to get to a Challenger Learning Center. There is a program called Vista Station in which elementary students convert an entire school or classroom into an orbiting space station. It has exploration points from which students launch explorations into the universe around them.
Another program, called Cosmic EdVentures, enables elementary students to become PEPs (Planetary Excursion Planners). They study the solar system in the context of planning trips and convincing their classmates to travel to another planet. They have to understand what life might be like in those environments, whether they’re safe or not safe and so on.
What are some of your new programs?
Coming up on October 17, on the National Mall here in Washington D.C., we will open a scale model of the solar system called “Voyage.” This is unique for several reasons. First, it’s a monument to the future rather than to the past. Secondly, it’s a scale model at one-ten billionth actual size, both in the sizes of each planet and the distances between them. We’re doing this in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution and NASA.
We’re also about to launch a program here in D.C., as part of our Window on the Universe project, that includes some 40 scientists and engineers visiting 250 local classrooms. We should reach about 7,000 students. We do Window on the Universe in collaboration with communities across the country. Typically, we try to do them in communities that may not have access to space science resources. Some recent Window communities include Tuskegee, Alabama, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma and Nogales, Arizona. We bring the whole community together in the celebration of science and learning.
How does this program work?
We currently have six Windows on the Universe communities, and Challenger Center provides them with program and research support for the first two years of their involvement. Of course, the hope is that after the two years, the communities will continue the program on their own.
We select the sites that we feel will have the most impact. We conduct a full day of teacher training for as many as 250 teachers. We then bring scientists and researchers to the schools to talk directly to the kids. The schools choose from a series of programs they feel relate most to their curriculum.
We also do Family Science Nights, where we invite the students to bring their parents and their brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles. They come to an auditorium, either at the school or gymnasium or a local theatre, where we have one of the guest researchers come and talk about the wonders of science and exploration, what it’s like to be doing research on the high frontier.
The program is so good it was more popular than the football game in Odessa, Texas. That’s hard to do!
Do you think space exploration will be an expanding field of endeavor?
I think there will be an expansion into the study of space, but as an organization we’re not looking to generate the next cadre of astronauts or engineers. All we want to do is build a scientifically literate population that understands why we need to do these things and how we learn and acquire knowledge. If you can do that, then students become life-long learners.
Space exploration has already affected many practical things in our lives. We have satellites tracking our phone calls and our television signals. People don’t realize how dependent we have become on a GPS array that’s up there that tells us specifically where we are at any given point in time. Navigation systems in cars using GPS are becoming more and more common.
Look at the medical field and the miniaturization issues that have come about. It’s not that we go to space in order to learn about miniaturization, but as a by-product of that activity, we have enhanced and improved the quality of life here on earth.
How many students have you reached out to over the years?
In our Learning Centers alone, you will see about a half a million students this year. The electronic field trips and the electronic lessons we have done as part of Space Day (an annual event) have reached as many as four million students a year for the last several years. So we’re touching a lot of lives with what we do. We’re not out there making a lot of noise about it, but we’re just excited that the kids are participating and learning.
Are there things that a teacher can get for free from Challenger?
Yes. There are downloadable activities, there are teacher’s guides from all of the Web broadcasts and electronic field trips. We do charge for some shipping and handling on the tape, but the teacher’s guide and all the activities that go with it are still available on the website for free along with a host of other activities and materials for teachers.
What makes space exploration a good subject for engaging interest in science?
Ask a group of third graders to describe the future and they’ll invariably take you to the stars someplace. Their future to them is not on this planet. It’s not because it’s something that they are told that they need to learn or are compelled to learn, it’s something that they want to know about and something that they see themselves in. It’s where they think they can make a difference.
For information about Challenger programs,
call 1-888-683-9740 or visit www.challenger.org