Topeka — The state of Kansas will soon be home to the 53rd Challenger Learning Center.
The center will be designed to simulate for students the experience of being a NASA astronaut or engineer.
Executive director Kevin Ikenberry spoke to the State Board of Education about the merits of the program last week.
"This is not just a program to teach kids about space science. We're looking at careers. We're looking at work-force development in its purest form down to the fourth-grade level.
"We really have a unique opportunity with this program to reach our students in a myriad of ways," Ikenberry said.
The center will be in Wellington, near Wichita, but will serve schools throughout Kansas. If it is successful, organizers said, they hope to establish several more in the state. They've named western and southeast Kansas as possible future sites.
The Challenger Learning Center project started as a memorial to the seven crew members who died in the Jan. 28, 1986, explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
Shortly afterward, the families of the Challenger astronauts decided the best way to honor their loved ones was to continue the education mission of the Challenger.
And that is exactly what the center does, according to Kay Tibbs, director of education for the program.
"Today's students expect to be able to experience what they're learning : and that's what a Challenger mission does. It gives them hands-on experience. It stimulates their mind.
"They are immersed in a space station environment, and they are using the skills they learned in the classroom to do their mission," she said.
The Challenger experience begins weeks or even months before the students arrive.
It starts with the instructor of the class traveling to the site in Wellington for a day of training. This is where they get the materials they will take back to the classroom to prepare their students. The instructor works with the students in the classroom until they've completed all the required experiments and lessons.
Then the entire class travels with their teacher to the center for a day. The day starts with a briefing where the students receive their "mission" before they head to their respective stations. Tibbs explained each position was specifically designed for different kinds of students.
"The teacher decides who does what job. Auditory learners go to the communication or navigation station. The teachers choose," Tibbs said.
The students spend the next three hours on a simulated mission, where they perform experiments, direct the flight and when a problem arises, make life or death decisions.
The Wellington center is scheduled to open Jan. 18 with a ceremony that will include the founders of the program, including family members of the Challenger astronauts.