Challenger Center inspires love of space exploration

2013-01-28T00:00:00Z 2013-02-01T16:05:26Z Challenger Center inspires love of space explorationJennifer Pallay Times Correspondent
January 28, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Challenger Learning Center students explore outer space while still on Earth but thanks to that experience, many start setting their sights to the stars.

The science education center, on Hammond Purdue University Calumet campus, uses space as the hook to get kids interested in career skills related to science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM.

It does 95 percent of its work during school based field trips, but also features public programs such as Family Science Night and summer camps, said Becky Manis, the center’s executive director.

New this school year is "Moon Based Explorers", which was developed for students in kindergarten through second grade.

“It’s all part of a simulation where they pretend they are astronauts and use their skills,” Manis said. “It’s Next Generation Standards based. It also meets the Common Core Standards for language and math.”

Kindergartners at Elliott Elementary School in Munster took advantage of the new program.

“They love all the hands-on experiments that help them understand what would be needed to live away from Earth,” said Julie Glavin, a kindergarten through fifth grade science teacher at the school. “They really enjoy putting on their space suits and ‘going to the moon.’ ”

Elliott students have been taking field trips to the center since its inception and currently its kindergartners, third- and fifth- graders visit.

“Its activities provide, inform and enhance the school’s science curriculum,” Glavin said. “Most importantly, the Challenger Center is very complimentary to the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) initiative that is becoming integral in instructing 21st century learners.”

Karey Shanks, who currently teaches second grade at Elliott, said she always enjoyed visiting the Challenger Center when she taught fifth grade.

“This experience provided an event that was memorable,” she said. “Even years after the students left Elliott School, they remembered their Challenger Center experiences.”

The Challenger Center helped her students gain confidence, she said, because it gave them grown-up achievements.

“They really felt like astronauts and did not want to let their team members down,” she said of the life-like experience. It inspired her students to aspire to be astronauts or scientists.

“Lights, sirens, computers, robotic arms, controlled radiation chambers, medical tests, smoke, what was not to love?” she said. The students loved every part of it from the chamber where they entered the space station to problem solving in mission control to debriefing and speaking with astronaut Jerry Ross.

Shanks said the experience was so real that many of her students truly believed they discovered a new object in space, and she was honored when they often chose to name it after her.

The center staff hopes to reach more future scientists with a new underwater astronaut training camp, which they hope to launch as a summer camp, Manis said. Working with SCUBA instructors, camp attendees will mimic the astronauts’ work in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab and practice tasks in the pool.

Another plan for the summer is an intergenerational camp that will bring together grandparents and their grandkids.

Summer camp registration typically begins in March and sessions fill up quickly.

“Our center is not just about space but it’s about the science and engineering and math. It’s about work force ready skills. If you think about our future, how much knowledge citizens will need to be productive and strengthen the U.S. We have such a heavy future ahead of us and we need to prepare our kids for the future. Our programs do that. They inspire kids by using space as the hook.”

Manis said the programs are highly educational with a lot of content built into them so teachers can match many standards.

“It should make it easy for teachers to prove that the field trips they take here are worthwhile.”

For more information on the center, call 219-989-3250 or visit

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