KENWOOD — Three ambassadors of an ad hoc committee looking to secure a licensed Challenger Learning Center for the county on Thursday asked Penns Manor Area school board members for their backing of the project with a $1 donation for each student in the district.
The purpose of the Challenger Learning Center is to get students, particularly those in fourth through eighth grade, more interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs and to increase the amount of those courses students will pursue during their secondary and post-secondary educations, said Indiana attorney Julia Trimarchi Cuccaro, the committee’s chairwoman.
The Challenger Learning Center will be open to students of all grade levels, and can even be used by local universities, local businesses, summer camps and space-science clubs, said committee member Walter Schroth, vice president of the Indiana Area School directors. Cuccaro said the center could even be utilized by first responders for crisis management and crisis communications.
Cuccaro said if students can show an interest in the STEM subjects, “by the time they get into the eighth grade, their standardized test scores begin to stabilize instead of that downward drop, and they’re able to go and take more advantage of the upper-level science and math classes.”
“The idea is that they’ll be able to then, when they’ve got the proper education, they can then perhaps choose careers in college in math and science, or they can begin to choose technology jobs that are being created right here in western Pennsylvania,” Cuccaro added.
The Challenger Foundation was started by the families of the astronauts killed in the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986. There are 48 centers in the United States, but none in Pennsylvania, Cuccaro said.
The committee hopes to get a license for about 22 counties in western Pennsylvania that will be served by the center, Cuccaro said. The committee has been presenting the idea for the center all over Indiana, Jefferson, Armstrong and Cambria counties, gathering a lot of support along the way with support resolutions, she said.
Students participating in the Challenger Learning program first complete 60 hours of instruction related to math and science at their schools, then travel to the center to use those skills in a simulation of a NASA mission control room and spacecraft.
When they complete the one-day program, they return to their school for follow-up instruction to make a connection between the textbook learning and the hands-on, real-life setting, Schroth said.
Teachers also receive one-day training at the center to help them adjust their curriculum, Schroth said. He added that some centers are offering robotics programs and senior-level programs as well.
Schroth said fourth through eighth grade is the period when students “make the decisions whether or not to pursue science and math careers and/or the advanced courses in science and math.”
“Currently, there are literally thousands of jobs that are not being filled because people don’t have the necessary math and science skills,” he said.
Schroth said Indiana sent its entire fourth-grade class to the center in Wheeling, W.Va., the closest center in the area.
He said before they went, virtually none of the students showed any interest. But after they completed the program, at least 10 students said they wanted to become astronauts.
“That was the first inkling that the mission was accomplished,” he said.
Cuccaro said all of the Challenger programs are NASA-affiliated, and emphasized that it’s not just a fun field trip for students.
The cost for the Challenger Learning Center is estimated at about $3 million, Cuccaro said, adding that funds will be raised privately and hopefully through state grants, but that the committee is looking for education support from the districts, which would be the “main consumer” of the program. In addition to the $1 donation per student, the cost to the district would be $25 per student per visit to the center.
Schroth said it would be up to the district superintendent and the school board to determine how many times the district will want to enter students into the program year to year. He said schools are going to want to send the same students two or three times throughout their fourth- through eighth-grade career. A lot of schools, however, send students for only one mission, he added.
Committee member Tom Harley, president of the Indiana Area School directors, said if the committee can raise the money and build the center, it’s hoped that the area’s students will want to come back at the next grade level after completing a program for the first time.
The committee is looking at a few locations: the Indiana County Technology Center, which “would be a wonderful match for us,” Cuccaro said; a county site at Windy Ridge Business and Technology Park; and two or three sites adjacent to or on the Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus.
Harley said a site didn’t have to be decided on at this moment, and “hopefully we’re working toward getting that nailed down as they open up.”
Cuccaro said the committee has received full support from the Indiana, Armstrong, Cambria and Jefferson county commissioners. They also have received support by resolution from the Homer-Center, Indiana, Blairsville-Saltsburg, Marion Center and United school districts.
Superintendent Thomas Kakabar said after the meeting that the Challenger Learning Center is a “worthy initiative” that the board is going to discuss at its July meeting.