Students apply science and math to real-life situations
The Challenger Learning Center is â€˜Daytonâ€™s best-kept secretâ€™
By Elizabeth J. Lolli
This article was published in the April 2019 digital edition of District Administration Magazine
Picture this scene: Red lights flash and the spacecraft darkens.
â€œWe are running out of fuel!â€ flight specialist Avril Gedman shouts to a group of 10 fifth-grade students wearing royal blue radiation vests. The students have only minutes to make an emergency landing on Mars. Theyâ€™re successfulâ€”narrowly missing Valles Marineris, the largest canyon in the solar system.
The students applaud. Their â€œVoyage to Marsâ€ mission at the Dayton Public Schoolsâ€™ Challenger Learning Center is complete.
Dayton Public Schoolsâ€™ Challenger Learning Center in Dayton, Ohio, is one of 44 centers around the globe aimed at engaging students in â€œhands-on exploration and discovery opportunities that strengthen knowledge in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,â€ according to the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. And it has had major upgrades over the past few years.
During missions, students tackle age-appropriate math and science problemsâ€”like volume, mass and algebraic equationsâ€”and use simulators to travel to Mars and replace the existing crew of astronauts in the mission control center, so those astronauts can travel back to Earth. Each student has an important job assignment, such as commanding officer, engineer or life support.
After buckling up for a simulated space shuttle launchâ€”complete with lights, shaking chairs and a countdownâ€”students enter the spacecraft through an air lock door. Inside, each student has a station. Some use robotic arms to analyze samples from the red planet, and others make sure the crew is not experiencing any negative physical effects of being in space by monitoring vital signs. The communications officer speaks with the mission control center on Mars, where students are doing similar work to ensure a safe landing for the incoming spacecraft.
The Challenger Center is a nonprofit founded by the families of those who died on the Challenger space shuttle in 1986. They wanted to continue the educational mission of their loved ones, including Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire grade school teacher who was selected from more than 11,000 applicants to conduct experiments and teach lessons from space.
Dayton Public Schoolsâ€™ Challenger Learning Center was founded four years after the tragic Challenger explosion. Bonnie Porter, the director of Daytonâ€™s Challenger Learning Center, joined the center three years ago. She brought on a team of two skilled â€œflight attendantsâ€â€”Marisa Wojtaszek and Gedmanâ€”who run the missions and create and conduct labs for students.
â€œI wanted to make this place a showcase for Dayton Public Schools as well as the city of Dayton,â€ Porter says.
The centerâ€™s purpose is to promote an interest in science and math, yet when Porter took over, only a handful of missions were being flown each year. On top of that, the building was in bad repair. Some rooms that had once been classrooms were being used for storage.
After persuading the district to fund the necessary repairs to revitalize the center, the mission equipment was upgraded and the software renewed. The plain white walls were painted with space-themed designs. A three-person team now regularly brainstorms ways to make more improvements.
Porter invited every third-, fifth- and eighth-grade class from Dayton Public Schools to sign up for a mission in the newly renovated centerâ€”and nearly all classes did.
â€œOur philosophy is that every student in this city should know what this is,â€ Gedman says. â€œEveryone needs to experience a space mission.â€
To do that, Porter and her crew have pushed for more community engagement, so more students get to experience the space-age fun. Once a month, the center opens its doors to the communityâ€”for a STEM night (turning the spacecraft into an escape room) or a flying a mission, for instance. Labs for homeschoolers are also offered once a month.
This year, the center is also offering a new weeklong spring break camp for 30 students.
During a full-schedule week, Gedman says they see about 135 students.
â€œWe are Daytonâ€™s best-kept secret,â€ Gedman says. But the word is getting out.
Upgrades and expansions
The center attracts groups from outside the district, as well as from neighboring states, to go on a mission. The center can accommodate students any day of the week, so long as there is room on the schedule.
A new mission will be offered at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year. In the â€œExpedition Marsâ€ scenario, the student astronauts are stationed on Phobos, one of the planetâ€™s moons. While making routine trips to the Martian surface, they are suddenly threatened by an asteroid.
Gedman canâ€™t say how the mission ends because it will change depending on the decisions each class makes. Do students want to continue on their journey to Mars to check on their greenhouse? Do they turn around and go back to Phobos? Each decision will affect how the mission concludes and the emergencies they face.
Over the next four years, software will be installed for three additional missions.
â€œItâ€™s not the same center that it was before,â€ Porter says. â€œItâ€™s so exciting. Everyone who comes here wants to come back.â€