Located at the southernmost point of the Purdue Calumet (soon to be Purdue Northwest) campus in Hammond is a building that on the outside could pass as just another university building. But the building is not affiliated with Purdue, and inside is a different kind of learning environment. An environment that offers hands-on education in the form of mission simulations, which cater to all ages but mainly serves classrooms full of tweens and young teens.
The Challenger Learning Center is named in memory of the crew members lost in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. Founded by the crew’s families, it aimed to give younger students the opportunity to work together and solve problems in similar surroundings to a real space mission. The first Center, located in NASA’s home city of Houston, Texas, opened in 1988.
Today, there are over 40 Centers located across four countries. Among them is Hammond’s, which has been in operation since 1999.
At the Learning Center, participants take part in missions modeled around different areas of space exploration. Completing these missions involves working together with one’s team members toward each objective. The missions also integrate various subjects from the classroom.
“All our programs integrate language, math and science as students are completing hands on activities that require them to communicate, calculate, observe, hypothesize, record, analyze and more,” Director Rebecca Manis said. “Social studies comes into play when we highlight the history of the space program or astronauts have contributed to the understanding we have of space travel and of our universe today.”
The missions are all developed by the Challenger National Office, located in Washington, D.C. However, while all Learning Centers get the same missions, Manis points out that what happens on the missions is often different and exciting for every group of students.
“A mission flown at our center might look very different from a mission flown at the center in Oakland, California,” Manis said.
Over sixteen years, the Center has gone through some updates, and not just accounting for changes in technology over that time. The missions’ curriculum has been updated to integrate current trends in science and space exploration. For example, there has been much recent discussion on the exploration of Mars.
“We’ve added a science activity lab that focuses on Curiosity and the work she is doing on Mars,” Manis said.
Another major issue in science is the environment.
“Our newest mission, Earth Odyssey, focuses completely on climate change and the effects that humans are having on the Earth,” Manis said.
The Challenger Learning Center offers packages for birthdays, summer camps, families, and even corporate retreats. Their most frequent visitors, however, are classes of middle-school age students.
“This is different than a field trip to say, a museum, where they might see many things, but not actually be drawn into the exhibit to participate,” Manis said. “Outside of learning the space-related content, they must be good communicators, problem solvers and teammates.”
As for how they respond to that experience, Manis relates a few person stories.
“We hear students walk out of here daily saying, ‘That was the best field trip ever!’" she said. “And we know of college students who are in engineering programs or aerospace programs because of their experiences here.”