The plan to start a Challenger Learning Center for space and science education in Indiana County has made a noteworthy advance.
The Challenger Foundation has accepted the application filed jointly by Indiana Area and Homer-Center school districts to establish a center in the area.
Compared to a real space shuttle, the project has yet to reach launch countdown, liftoff or commitment to orbit. But, to use an analogy, it is the equivalent of putting people to work in the Vehicle Assembly Building and getting a shuttle fully equipped for its mission.
The center here will be called the Central Allegheny Challenger Learning Center.
“This is the first major hurdle, and now we have internal steps to take,” said Julia Trimarchi Cuccaro, the chairwoman of a community-based committee appointed through the Indiana Area school board to explore the concept.
“The big thing is that this guarantees us a basic region, so no other applications can go in at this point,” she said.
The foundation has designated 22 counties of western and central Pennsylvania as the exclusive market for the Challenger center in Indiana. No other Challenger program would be set up in that area.
The Challenger Foundation was set up by the families of the astronauts who died in the 1986 explosion of the Challenger shuttle. In the nearly 50 learning centers set up since then, classrooms take the look of NASA’s Mission Control center in Houston and the labs on the International Space Station.
Lessons couched in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM subjects, are taught in the context of the work being done by astronauts in space. In concept, the program helps students develop decision-making and problem-solving skills and builds their passion for exploration and futuristic thinking.
The head of the foundation is Lance Bush, a graduate of Homer-Center High School.
Cuccaro said the approval of the application allows the local group to move on with fundraising for the project and to decide on a location.
The group named four possible sites in the application, including Indiana County Technology Center, the Windy Ridge Business Park and a couple of locations near the Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus.
“We have been given six months to choose a site but personally, I feel we need to have it wrapped up by Labor Day,” Cuccaro said. “That would coincide with starting the second phase of fundraising.”
From a financial standpoint, the space activity simulators cost $875,000 and the site prep could run $400,000 to $500,000 for a renovated facility. The total cost to build a Challenger Learning Center in a new building could reach $3 million, according to the organization’s literature, and the cost to operate it would range from $300,000 to $400,000 a year.