(WACO) – Haylee Harper, 9, of Bosqueville, has career goals as big as the solar system.
“I like learning about science,” the Bosqueville Elementary School fourth-grade student said. “I want to one day put a flag on a planet.”
Harper said she enjoyed talking into a microphone inside Mission Control at the new Challenger Learning Center, which formally opened Thursday night with a community event at Texas State Technical College in Waco.
The educational center on Airline Drive is the third of its kind in Texas and is affiliated with the not-for-profit Challenger Center for Space Science Education in Washington, D.C. The state’s other centers are at Texas State Technical College in Harlingen and San Antonio College. There are more than 40 centers nationwide and in Canada, South Korea and Great Britain.
The center’s purpose is to bring the sun, moon, stars, and planets to life for students. After a meeting in a briefing room, students are divided into two groups, one to work in Mission Control, and the other in a working laboratory. Students also “ride” on the Space Shuttle Challenger and visit a planetarium. The activities center on communication, critical thinking, leadership, science, mathematics, engineering and technology.
“These kids get a sense of accomplishment,” said Dr. Lance Bush, president and chief executive officer of the Challenger Center.
Kris Collins, senior vice president of economic development for the Waco Chamber of Commerce, said aviation and aeronautics are target industries for the city. She said TSTC and its learning center, along with SpaceX in McGregor, were critical to the chamber’s goals.
“I think it’s fantastic for the technical school to bring students in to showcase the programs offered,” Collins said.
Finding ways to teach science creatively to students can be a challenge for educators.
China Spring Middle School eighth-grade science teacher Shannon Field saw the learning center for the first time and imagined her students visiting. She said the center puts space science in front of the students and can hopefully spark curiosity.
“I think it’s great,” Field said. “Field trips are usually confined. This in our backyard.”
Carson Pearce, director of the TSTC Aerospace Division, hopes the students’ interest in science today translates into future air traffic controllers, pilots, aircraft technicians and other aeronautical careers. He said there is a 94 percent placement rate for division graduates.
“Once they (students) get energized and have the imagination, they are going to want an outlet,” Pearce said.
The Cooper Foundation and the Rapoport Foundation, both in Waco, made substantial financial gifts to the initiative.
Casey Sadler, the Rapoport Foundation’s foundation coordinator, predicted the center would bring more exposure to the technical college and Waco. She said education is one of the foundation’s areas of interest.
“Geographically it is an excellent location,” Sadler said. “Waco is on Interstate 35 with Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin close by for unbelievable opportunities for students.”
Addison Haygood, a fifth-grade student at Woodgate Intermediate School in the Midway Independent School District, dreams of being an astronaut someday, but also an actress.
“It was cool,” Haygood said about her visit. “I liked looking at all the planets and stars in the planetarium.”
Tours for area schools will begin later this fall. Trey Pearson, director of the Challenger Learning Center, is ready to see how students of all ages take to the simulations and planetarium.
“That’s going to be the exciting thing,” he said.
TSTC Chancellor Michael Reeser reminded attendees that the technical college was founded in 1965, the year of the early NASA spaceflight program Gemini. He said space can excite children.
“There is no more worthy way to explore space than to honor the people who explored the outer reaches of the universe,” Reeser said. “Every time a child comes through the center, we want hope and excitement to do the technology to make a difference in the country and world.”
The Challenger Learning Center honors the astronauts who died Jan. 28, 1986, when a booster engine failed on the Challenger space shuttle launching from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The initiative was founded later that year by the families of the seven astronauts tragically killed.
To register a class for the space exploration experience, log on to tstc.edu/challenger.