From STEM to space: Richland One Challenger Learning Center celebrates 20 years

Three ninth-grade students from W.J. Keenan High School have completed an experiment that has been chosen to be performed on the International Space Station later this year.

The students test how cornstarch and water react in a weightless environment that’s similar to space. It’s an experiment that studies microgravity and tests how starch particles, which are found in plants, move and cause plant life to grow in an alternative environment.

“This could eventually further life beyond Earth because cornstarch is what plants use to store glucose, which eventually leads to photosynthesis, which lets the plant grow in space,” freshman Ryan Matthews explained.

Students test if their structure will hold up to an earthquake during a simulator exercise. (photo by Kelly Petty)

Students test if their structure will hold up to an earthquake during a simulation exercise. (photo by Kelly Petty)

The students are winners of the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program sponsored by the National Center for Earth and Space Science. They are also an example of the mission of Richland One’s Challenger Learning Center to promote South Carolina’s growing aerospace industry.

“We want students to understand that there are careers available and we’ve got to get our kids excited at a very early age to get into that workforce pipeline,” said Lead Flight Director Dr. Carolyn Donelan. “It’s not just about making our smarter students smarter; it’s about getting all students  excited so they can understand the wealth of opportunities.”

The Keenan High School students presented their experiment to a large audience during the center’s 20th anniversary celebration this month. Their project was supported by the Challenger Learning Center and was selected to be conducted on the International Space Station later this year.

“This is certainly a testament to what we do in Richland One in providing opportunities for our young people to see not only beyond our expectations, but beyond their expectations,” said Superintendent Dr. Craig Witherspoon.

Not long after the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle on Jan. 28, 1986 took the lives of seven astronauts, including South Carolina’s own Ronald McNair, the families of the victims came together to honor the mission through an educational resource that could be accessible to all.

Dr. Carolyn Donelan (center) accepts two proclamations from Richland One school board commissioners. (photo by Kelly Petty)

Dr. Carolyn Donelan (center) accepts two proclamations from Richland One school board commissioners. (photo by Kelly Petty)

The Challenger Center for Space Science Education was developed three months after the explosion. In 1988, the first Challenger Learning Center opened in Houston, Texas. More than 40 centers opened across the nation over the years in places such as Tennessee, Arizona and Indiana.

Ten years after the disaster, Richland One’s Challenger Learning Center was the 26th to form. The institution is what Richland One Board Commissioner Vince Ford calls the district’s “best kept secret.”

“We are proud of having the nation’s first free-standing Challenger Learning Center, a facility that will provide a competitive educational advantage to our students, teachers and community in this technological era,” Ford said. “This center is a valuable resource for our state and nation. It’s just a stone’s throw away from the birthplace of Charles F. Bolden Jr., the current NASA administrator who, as an astronaut, piloted the shuttle mission that placed the Hubble Telescope in space.”

https://youtu.be/Y9zdMA4NUgE

In the last two decades, the center has served as a center for space exploration and education for students, teachers and visitors across South Carolina.

Equipped with an aerospace education laboratory, portable flight simulators and an ePlanetarium, visitors have been able to gain hands-on experience in the aviation and aerospace industries.

World-renowned scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson and C.A. Johnson High School graduate and NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr. have been invited to speak at the learning center.

The learning center also houses an exhibit dedicated to the Tuskegee Airmen as well as a 20-foot replica of the shuttle honoring the Challenger 51-L crew.

Mission Commander Robyn Mance sets up a space mission program. (photo by Kelly Petty)

Mission Commander Robyn Mance sets up a space mission program. (photo by Kelly Petty)

Richland One’s Challenger Learning Center has also been at the forefront of the national push for education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, also know as STEM, through its array of educational resources.

“To sustain the long-term growth of the aerospace industry, our state needs a workforce pipeline that reaches down to our youngest students,” Donelan said. “Richland One recognizes this need and opportunity for our students and supports the Challenger Learning Center in inspiring students to pursue STEM careers.”

Summer camps give children the opportunity to build robots, launch model rockets and fly jets in a flight simulator. The Astrotots program, designed for students in kindergarten through second grade, gives kids a chance to explore the learning center’s mission control room and space station.

Partnerships with the University of South Carolina’s Ron McNair Center for BLAh, the College of Engineering and the school’s Project Lead The Way program are invaluable resources for training students on the latest technology.

“In return we provide a conduit so they can get to students, and we can work together to get our students excited,” Donelan said.

More than 350 high school students from across the Midlands also attend Aerospace Career Day each year in the fall to consider career fields in aviation and aerospace.

Companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Michelin Aircraft Tire Corporation engage students on the growing needs for employees equipped to build or operate the next generation of aircraft. Midlands Technical College, the College of Charleston and Greenville Technical College share information about degrees and courses students can take to become the nation’s next engineers and technicians.

A replica sculpture of the Challenger Space Shuttle. (photo by Kelly Petty)

A replica sculpture of the Challenger Space Shuttle. (photo by Kelly Petty)

“As we chart our course for the next 20 years, we are refining our mission to inspire, explore and learn,” Donelan said. “Of course we want students to realize that STEM subjects are fun and exciting but, more importantly, we want them to realize that the rapidly growing aerospace industry in South Carolina needs qualified workers that excel in the STEM subjects.”

For Keenan High School science teacher Kirstin Bullington, the learning center serves as place for teachers to supplement their daily coursework with relevant classroom materials, while also offering students a place to connect with the aerospace industry.

“It’s amazing what the experiences are here. I’ve sent my own daughter to space camp here because it’s just an incredible experience,” she said. “From a teaching perspective, just having all these activities support us – Dr. Donelan is always sending out opportunities.”

Keenan High ninth graders Cedric McQueen and Tevin Glover both appreciated the center’s resemblance to NASA.

“When I came in here, I noticed that this place was built off of teamwork and how people work together,” Glover said. “Groups of people can build the future.”

 

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