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HAMMOND – “Re-Imagining the World” was the theme Thursday of the Challenger Learning Center gala at the Indiana Welcome Center, where the organization tried to drum up support for a proposed Midwest Science Center.

The center would feature an IMAX Theater, a planetarium and a STEM preschool, organizers said. 

The former Walmart site at 1828 165th St. sits on more than 11 acres and would expand on the science opportunities offered by the Challenger Learning Center that opened 18 years ago at Purdue University Northwest’s Hammond campus.

More than 270,000 students have attended field trips, special programs and summer camps at the Challenger Learning Center that opened its doors in 1999, envisioned by former sixth-grade teacher and founding director Lisa Austgen.

“It’s a new day for Northwest Indiana,” PNW Chancellor Thomas Keon said in a videotaped address. “We are interested in economic development in Northwest Indiana. We must be able to develop a high-quality workforce.”

Challenger’s simulations give students a chance to experience a day in the life of people in such careers as medical and biological science; chemical, mechanical and process engineering; navigation; and communications.

In a videotaped presentation, former astronaut Col. Jerry Ross praised Challenger's programs for inspiring students so through their “skills and abilities they can make a difference.”

A silent auction and a raffle helped raise funds for the new science center. Star Wars characters R2D2 and Storm Troopers interacted with guests.

Engineer and magician Steve Belliveau created experiments as the crowd laughed, clapped and put their own science knowledge to the test.

After donning a multicolored lab coat, goggles and gloves, Belliveau made “elephant toothpaste.” He mixed hydrogen peroxide with a special salt and soap in a beaker, then added water. A large mass of foam flowed from the concoction and emitted steam.

“The steam coming off means it’s hot, an exothermic reaction,” he told the guests.

At the inaugural gala, awards also recognized the work of two area teachers and of W.F. “Bill” Wellman as a visionary.

Challenger Learning Center Executive Director Rebecca Manis and ArcelorMittal representative Kelly Nissan presented the ArcelorMittal Excellence in STEM Education Awards to Natalie Bevil, who teaches fifth grade at Lincoln Elementary School in Hammond, and to Dan Pastrick, of Hebron Middle School, who teaches sixth- through eighth-grade science.

The wooden plaques presented to Bevil and Pastrick featured bits of ArcelorMittal steel fashioned into stars.

A standing ovation greeted Wellman as Challenger Learning Center board Chairwoman Mary Beth Nickolaou welcomed the 93-year old to the stage to present him with the inaugural Dean White Visionary Award.

Wellman, former chairman of the board for the Challenger Learning Center, was instrumental in helping the center become a reality in Northwest Indiana, Nickolaou said.

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