Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Directors consider request for Challenger science center

by RANDY WELLS rwells@indianagazette.net on April 16, 2013 10:50 AM

MARION CENTER — Members of the ad hoc committee working to secure a licensed Challenger Learning Center for Indiana County Monday asked the Marion Center Area school directors to back the project with a donation of $1 for each of the district’s approximate 1,400 students. The organizers further urged the directors to later support a completed center with “business” — by routinely sending students there on a paid basis to strengthen their math and science skills by “flying” simulated space missions.

The Challenger Learning Center is an opportunity to put in kids’ hands some technology they’re not going to get elsewhere, said Vicki Smith, a committee member and president of the Homer-Center School District directors.

“Challenger is rigorous, but it’s fun,” added Indiana attorney Julia Trimarchi Cuccaro, chairwoman of the committee.

The Challenger Learning Centers were created by the survivors of the astronauts killed in the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986. There are 48 centers perpetuating that shuttle’s educational mission, but there are none in Pennsylvania. The center nearest to Indiana County is in Wheeling, W.Va., and it has more business that it can handle, according to the committee members.

The centers conduct earth and space science lessons in the form of “missions” for students at all grade levels and offer programs for adults in their home communities. The centers sustain themselves on fees collected from participating groups.

Walter Schroth, another committee member and vice president of the Indiana Area School directors, said students participating in the Challenger program first complete about 60 hours of math- and science-related instruction in their home schools before traveling to a Challenger center for a one-day program of using their skills in a simulated NASA mission control room and space craft. When the students return to their home classrooms they get follow-up instruction provided by the Challenger program.

Other goals of the centers are to increase the number of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses that students will take during their secondary and post-secondary educations, and provide students entering the workforce with the necessary skill sets to pursue STEM-related careers.

“Some of the centers are now getting into robotics,” Schroth said.

Students of all grade levels can participate, but the centers’ “core customers” are students in grades 4 through 8. That’s the age group when students start to make decisions about what careers they’ll follow, Cuccaro said.

The committee members said the proposed center will cost about $3 million and they hope to finance it through state grants and donations from corporations and foundations. A resolution of support from the Marion Center directors would be very helpful in winning those grants, Cuccaro said.

Beyond the initial $1-per-student donation, the future cost to the school district would be about $25 per student per visit to the center.

“When you see what the advantages are to the students, you’ll want to come, and probably come more often,” Schroth said.

He added that a center in Indiana County would likely attract students from many regional school districts and would also likely be supported by summer camps and other users.

Cuccaro said the committee plans to submit a licensing application in May and before then will narrow the possible sites for an Indiana County center to three locations.

“The ICTC (Indiana County Technology Center) is obviously on our list” along with other possible locations along the Route 119 corridor, Cuccaro said.

The Indiana Area and Homer-Center school directors have pledged initial financial support for a local Challenger Learning Center. The committee members previously asked Blairsville-Saltsburg and United school directors for similar backing.

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