Local organizers of the effort to establish a Challenger Learning Center for space and science education in Indiana County celebrated their first major fundraising milestone Friday, hosting the head of the Challenger Foundation and a NASA astronaut on tours of area schools and at a reception at Indiana County Technology Center.
Homer City native Lance Bush, president of the Challenger Foundation, and Leland Melvin, a veteran of 565 hours of space flight on two shuttle missions, told elementary school students in Homer-Center and Indiana about the opportunities the Challenger Center would provide for them — lessons in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the core subjects of what’s being called STEM education.
At a reception at the ICTC, the envisioned site for the Central Allegheny Challenger Learning Center, Bush and Melvin said they had seen the keys to the center’s future success in their visit.
“I’m always thinking of the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child, and that’s exactly what I’ve seen today in this county. People are so charged and inspired to make a difference in the lives of children and teachers,” Melvin said.
Melvin, 49, who flew on shuttle missions 122 in 2008 and 129 in 2009, said he will retire next month from his post associate administrator of education at NASA
“This is where a community comes together to make a difference. I think about the things we’re doing at NASA with children all around the world, letting them see the opportunities … and when you think the things that excite and inspire students, dinosaurs and space, if we could genetically alter and make a ‘dinonaut,’ we’d have them nailed! But since we can’t do that, we have to use the things that we have, and we look at ways to use all the assets that NASA has, to ensure that every child that believes that they can do something are interested,” he said. “If they are interested, they will figure out a way to do it, and that’s what this community is doing today, coming together as a team … all this energy is coming together to ensure that these kids have a path.”
Melvin said Challenger Centers can generate productive interests in children.
“These are skills that you can use in any job you do,” Melvin said. “You’re working with others communicating — not text messaging, but literally communicating with someone that’s on the space station or putting reports together. You’re communicating with people of different backgrounds. These are skills our kids are using because they are not so focused on playing video games or sitting off in the social media world. This forces the kids to work as a team toward common outcomes and common solutions, and that is what space is all about. It’s people coming together from around the world to advance our citizenship, and that’s what we do.”
Bush said the students he saw Friday were excited about the opportunities.
“Children, at that age, their minds are much more imaginative and stronger than ours, and they’re not confined yet by failures or realities. They believe, and they should, that they are going to be among the first people to go to Mars. With the plans we’re looking at, any one of those kids in that room could be the first to step on Mars, when you think about the time frame and where we’re going.
“The other message we left with them is that you have a community that is so behind you, and you’ve got hard work and ethics, and a great education system here.”
And the area has a track record, he said. One year before Bush did, Patricia Hilliard graduated from Homer-Center and was named to NASA’s astronaut corps. She was fatally injured in a plane crash in Texas in 2001.
“Patty Hilliard became an astronaut and I got to be a rocket scientist. ‘It’s in all your DNAs,’” Bush said he told the students. “‘You can do whatever you want. Just figure out what you want to do, go do it, and don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t.’ And they were totally receptive to that message.”
Advocates of the Challenger Center make no promise that every student who goes through the program would be ready be an astronaut or to work at NASA’s Mission Control — the kind of work that’s simulated at the centers. But having strong STEM education, Bush said, can prepare students for work in almost any field from banking and energy to music and the arts.
“Here you have a community like many across the country is struggling through economic times,” he said. “Now you have all these jobs coming in and companies need people with certain skills and qualifications, and they can’t find them locally. That’s why you need this partnership of ICTC and the Challenger Center. … This makes sure kids are engaged and know they can do math and science, and aren’t turned off by grade 5, and will continue into high school saying ‘I know I can do math and science, even if I’m not going to be an aerospace engineer.’”
Energy and manufacturing are high-tech jobs that need the skills promoted by Challenger Centers, he said.
Bush also said the initiative in Indiana County has progressed faster than the planning for Challenger Centers in other communities.
Here, it started in June 2012, when Bush, a 1980 graduate of Homer-Center High School, was the guest commencement speaker and mentioned the Challenger program to local school leaders. Meanwhile, Bush’s parents, family friends of then-Indiana Area school board member Walter Schroth, also briefed him on the concept.
Nearly simultaneous ideas to bring a Challenger Center to Indiana County were introduced, with Indiana Area and Homer-Center uniting in the planning.
After applying and being granted a charter for a center to serve 22 counties of central Pennsylvania, the organizing group won a $1.365 million grant from the state and are working on winning more government aid.
Indiana attorney Julia Trimarchi Cuccaro was named to lead the community study group, and she said Friday the center can have a long-term economic benefit to the entire community, not only students.
“We truly see Challenger as a portal,” Cuccaro said. “If we can get students interested in math and science at an earlier and earlier age, we can encourage them to take upper-level science and engineering and technology classes … things like additive manufacturing and robotics, things that are going to make a difference in their careers and workforce development.”
Bush praised the collaborative effort.
“I’m really proud of what these guys are doing, because when a community starts to think of doing something of this magnitude, it can take quite a while,” Bush said. “And the first conversation, between two people, was just a year and a half ago. These guys have done a phenomenal job of moving it forward.”
Vicki Smith, president of the Homer-Center school board and the joint operating committee at ICTC, said Friday the center could open by September 2015.