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Challenger Learning Center blasts learning out of this world

Few Americans have blasted off and explored space first-hand, but through the Challenger Learning Center of Colorado, students and the public can fly realistic missions while remaining earth-bound.Born out of the tragedy of the Challenger shuttle disaster, Challenger Learning Centers’ strive to continue the educational mission of the Challenger crew. CLCC opened in 2002 and is one of 50 centers worldwide that offers opportunities to use science and math to problem solve real-life situations.The CLCC’s most popular program – the simulated space mission – is available for grades four to 12, corporate teams, families and small groups.CLCC Flight Commander Merry Bartek said groups can take part in one of CLCC’s three missions- Rendezvous with a Comet, Voyage to Mars or Return to the Moon. Each simulation lasts 2.5 hours and is guaranteed to inspire curiosity about space exploration, Bartek said.Students begin by blasting off into space, dock with their transport vehicle and go through an airlock that leads to a spacecraft command center. “This is about as close to real life as we can possibly get them,” Bartek said.In space, crew members perform scientific research, collect samples, navigate the mission, and relay their findings to their counterparts at Mission Control. Back on earth, Mission Control serves as the brains of the operation, analyzing data and keeping their main goal to ensure the safety of the crew in space. The two groups communicate through e-mail.Bartek said teachers and flight commanders take a hands-off approach during the simulation. Their goal is to give students the opportunity to think things through on their own.”We’re here, monitoring the whole time, giving assistance when needed, but backing off as soon as we’re not needed anymore. Just enough to get unstuck and give the mission back to them,” she said.Students spend several weeks in class preparing for the mission before coming to CLCC. They fill out job applications and are assigned specific duties. During the simulation, emergencies arise and students are required to problem solve to ensure the success of the mission.Bartek said an amazing transformation takes place as students realize they are in control of the mission’s outcome. “They get a little better at doing their jobs. It’s amazing how fast they turn around and give their attention,” she said.Students also learn to be self-directed and listen and follow directions and cooperate with each other.”Part of our mission at CLCC is to make sure everyone feels successful and feels really good about how they contributed to the mission,” Bartek said. “We’re going to guarantee that it happens – we cheer all the time.”The excitement over space exploration has waned since the days of the Challenger space shuttle, Bartek said. But participating in CLCC’s mission simulation ignites the passion in students who visit CLCC. “We need those engineers, we need those forward thinkers for tomorrow,” she said. “A lot of the things we learn in space we can apply to life on earth.”She said she always encourages students to go home and continue their space explorations. Her favorite resource is Smarr, CLCC business development manager, said she sees some students dragging their feet as they enter the facility. “By the end, the same kids are high-fiving each other and are excited to share what they’ve learned,” she said.Smarr said great opportunities exist for students interested in careers in the space industry. Because of the military instillations and large contractor base, Smarr said Colorado Springs has the highest concentration of space industry jobs in the nation.Many currently in those fields are close to retirement age and the upcoming generation is not prepared to fill the vacancies, Smarr said.”We’re finding in middle school, kids are self-selecting out of these career fields because they think they are boring, they’re geeky or too hard,” Smarr said. “We hope by bringing them here and giving them hands-on experiences that they think ‘Oh, I could do this. I could really be a medical officer on a shuttle because I know what it takes.'”Programs available at CLCCSpace Camp: Future Space Travel to the Moon and MarsHeld during the Falcon School District 49 fall break, October 19 to 23, this week-long camp features guest speakers, two simulated missions, geocaching, career training and numerous hands-on activities.Station-based missionsDesigned for students in kindergarten to third grade, the station-based missions encourage curiosity through hands-on, age-appropriate activities. Young children learn about planets, what makes a day and night, the life of an astronaut, space transport vehicles and more. Each station-based mission is a capstone to a four to six week integrated curriculum unit taught in the classroom.Simulator missionsReturn to the Moon (fourth and fifth grades): Students travel to the Moon to observe and explore and test the feasibility of off-Earth settlements. Students navigate into a lunar orbit, construct and launch a probe and gather and analyze data in an effort to select a site for establishing a permanent moon base.Rendezvous with a Comet (grades six through 12): Students plot a rendezvous course with a comet, launch a probe and collect scientific data on the object. They are trained as teams of scientists and engineers, giving students first-hand workplace experiences in teamwork, decision-making and problem-solving skills.Voyage to Mars (grades seven to 12): It’s the year 2076, and the students voyage to Mars to relieve the current team of astronauts who have operated Mars Control for the past two years. The new astronauts continue their scientific explorations and use teamwork and problem-solving skills to ensure a successful transfer by overcoming emergencies and environmental variables.Distance-delivered programse-Missions(tm) are designed to reach students in classrooms in remote or rural areas. The simulated, problem-based, learning adventures are delivered right into the classroom via distance learning technology. Live scenarios allow students the chance to problem solve and work hands-on to complete missions. e-Missions(tm) are available for grades three to 12.Traveling programsCLCC has two traveling programs – e-Planetarium: Stellar Portal and Living in Space: Preparing to Leave Earth. Each program includes standards-aligned, grade-level appropriate curriculum.OtherCLCC flies public missions two Saturdays a month and schedules birthday parties and corporate training sessions. A specially designed mission for Boy Scouts of America completes the Space Exploration merit badge.For more information, visit

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