Students apply science and math to real-life situations

The Challenger Learning Center is ‘Dayton's best-kept secret'
Elizabeth J. Lolli is the superintendent of Dayton Public Schools in Ohio.

Picture this scene: Red lights flash and the spacecraft darkens.
“We are running out of fuel!” flight specialist Avril Gedman shouts to a group of 10 fifth-grade students wearing royal blue radiation vests. The students have only minutes to make an emergency landing on Mars. They’re successful—narrowly missing Valles Marineris, the largest canyon in the solar system.

The students applaud. Their “Voyage to Mars” mission at the Dayton Public Schools’ Challenger Learning Center is complete.

Hands-on exploration

Dayton Public Schools’ Challenger Learning Center in Dayton, Ohio, is one of 44 centers around the globe aimed at engaging students in “hands-on exploration and discovery opportunities that strengthen knowledge in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” according to the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. And it has had major upgrades over the past few years.

During missions, students tackle age-appropriate math and science problems—like volume, mass and algebraic equations—and use simulators to travel to Mars and replace the existing crew of astronauts in the mission control center, so those astronauts can travel back to Earth. Each student has an important job assignment, such as commanding officer, engineer or life support.

After buckling up for a simulated space shuttle launch—complete with lights, shaking chairs and a countdown—students enter the spacecraft through an air lock door. Inside, each student has a station. Some use robotic arms to analyze samples from the red planet, and others make sure the crew is not experiencing any negative physical effects of being in space by monitoring vital signs. The communications officer speaks with the mission control center on Mars, where students are doing similar work to ensure a safe landing for the incoming spacecraft.

Continuing mission

The Challenger Center is a nonprofit founded by the families of those who died on the Challenger space shuttle in 1986. They wanted to continue the educational mission of their loved ones, including Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire grade school teacher who was selected from more than 11,000 applicants to conduct experiments and teach lessons from space.

Dayton Public Schools’ Challenger Learning Center was founded four years after the tragic Challenger explosion. Bonnie Porter, the director of Dayton’s Challenger Learning Center, joined the center three years ago. She brought on a team of two skilled “flight attendants”—Marisa Wojtaszek and Gedman—who run the missions and create and conduct labs for students.
“I wanted to make this place a showcase for Dayton Public Schools as well as the city of Dayton,” Porter says.

The center’s purpose is to promote an interest in science and math, yet when Porter took over, only a handful of missions were being flown each year. On top of that, the building was in bad repair. Some rooms that had once been classrooms were being used for storage.

After persuading the district to fund the necessary repairs to revitalize the center, the mission equipment was upgraded and the software renewed. The plain white walls were painted with space-themed designs. A three-person team now regularly brainstorms ways to make more improvements.
Porter invited every third-, fifth- and eighth-grade class from Dayton Public Schools to sign up for a mission in the newly renovated center—and nearly all classes did.

“Our philosophy is that every student in this city should know what this is,” Gedman says. “Everyone needs to experience a space mission.”

To do that, Porter and her crew have pushed for more community engagement, so more students get to experience the space-age fun. Once a month, the center opens its doors to the community—for a STEM night (turning the spacecraft into an escape room) or a flying a mission, for instance. Labs for homeschoolers are also offered once a month.

This year, the center is also offering a new weeklong spring break camp for 30 students.
During a full-schedule week, Gedman says they see about 135 students.
“We are Dayton’s best-kept secret,” Gedman says. But the word is getting out.

Upgrades and expansions

The center attracts groups from outside the district, as well as from neighboring states, to go on a mission. The center can accommodate students any day of the week, so long as there is room on the schedule.

A new mission will be offered at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year. In the “Expedition Mars” scenario, the student astronauts are stationed on Phobos, one of the planet’s moons. While making routine trips to the Martian surface, they are suddenly threatened by an asteroid.

Gedman can’t say how the mission ends because it will change depending on the decisions each class makes. Do students want to continue on their journey to Mars to check on their greenhouse? Do they turn around and go back to Phobos? Each decision will affect how the mission concludes and the emergencies they face.

Over the next four years, software will be installed for three additional missions.
“It’s not the same center that it was before,” Porter says. “It’s so exciting. Everyone who comes here wants to come back.”

Elizabeth J. Lolli is the superintendent of Dayton Public Schools in Ohio.

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