Calling all students with a bent for science, math, engineering, and technology this summer. When school starts back in fall, classmates can amaze one another with stories about their extraterrestrial experiences gleaned over summer break.
Campers at the Challenger Learning Center in Richland District One are discovering that adventures promote learning, and outer space is a great classroom. Students involved in these unique camps can launch rockets, build robots, and fly simulation airplanes. Some also train for future careers, maybe even as an astronaut or aeronautics expert.
The aerospace-themed educational program, near Bolden Stadium in the Edgewood neighborhood of Columbia, provides a field-study destination for students with an interest in aviation, robotics, rocketry, and space science. Established in February 1996, the center serves as a living memorial to the heroes of the Challenger crew who perished in the 1986 space shuttle explosion.
South Carolina astronaut Ronald E. McNair, who was on that fatal mission, believed students can soar like eagles, metaphorically stretching their wings and flying through the sky, which the center inspires them to do in many ways.
Carolyn Donelan, Ph.D., the center’s lead flight director, exudes an enthusiastic pride in the center she oversees. “We are transforming lives, empowering all students to achieve their potential and dreams. The center inspires students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) by engaging them in dynamic, hands-on exploration and discovery opportunities.”
The summer camps enable students to stay academically engaged over their summer break. “While the activities may be challenging, our experienced staff keeps it fun,” she adds. “Many of our campers are ‘frequent flyers’ because they first attend Astronaut Academy, introducing them to rockets, robots, and aviation, and then return for specialty camps.” Instructors, called “Mission Commanders,” are certified science teachers, and the Flight Consultant is a licensed pilot — qualifications that impress parents and students alike.
A convincing testimonial comes from former student France Jackson, Ph.D., now a researcher for the Intel Corporation in Oregon. As a Richland District One student, she gained her first exposure to the thrill of science and technology as a camper. Inspired to pursue a career in technology, she later obtained a bachelor’s and master’s in engineering from Clemson University as well as a doctorate in computer science from the University of Florida.
France says the camping sessions at the Challenger Learning Center spurred her decision to study engineering. “I’m not sure I would be an engineer if it weren’t for the hands-on experience I had at the center. My experience there was a major event in my life.”
Carolyn says student interest in STEM careers is sparked by simulated space voyages where they, as astronauts and engineers, study real-world problems and experience the thrill of solar system discoveries.
Columbia native and astronaut Charles F. Bolden, Jr., who served as NASA administrator under President Barack Obama, attended W.A. Perry Middle and C.A. Johnson High Schools before graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy. He was inspired to become an astronaut by fellow South Carolinian McNair.
Charles is an enthusiastic supporter of the center. “In this time when scientific and technical literacy is more important than ever and when our nation has embarked on a journey to Mars, the work of the Challenger Learning Center is absolutely critical.”
Career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and math are growing almost twice as fast as in other fields. Currently, nearly 60 percent of all jobs in South Carolina require a post-secondary degree or certificate. In response to that need, the S.C. Education Oversight Committee has launched a campaign to better prepare students for the state’s economy in the 21st century.
At the center’s 20th anniversary in 2016, Charles shared, “Giving students firsthand access to scientists and engineers, the ability to perform experiments and see things flown in space, and the chance to follow their own paths of curiosity are going to help us create the next generation of leaders and explorers. Beyond the technological and scientific breakthroughs that our exploration work provides, perhaps its most important gift is that of inspiration.”
As chair of the Challenger Learning Center’s advisory board, Paul Werts provides expert insight as former executive director of the S.C. Aeronautics Commission. He feels that the center is not only a jewel for Richland School District One, but it is also an amazing opportunity for all South Carolina students to learn the many facets of aviation and the potential careers of their dreams. Because of its central location, the center serves students who can come for the day from other school districts. “We encourage all South Carolinians, including home school students and all others, to come to the center. We’re literally helping children reach for the stars and planets, advancing real world STEM aerospace education in South Carolina,” says Paul.
Paul shares that they want to engage others in growing the educational workforce pipeline in aviation, aerospace, and advanced manufacturing industries and to broaden the public’s understanding of the aviation industry. “While many think of pilots, it’s a much larger industry spectrum. STEM education provides the foundation for South Carolina students to pursue a career in aerospace. As one of the top five industries in South Carolina, it must keep pace with other highly technical industries that are seeking the same pool of employees.”
As someone whose interest in STEM was sparked by her experiences at the center, France speaks persuasively of why early exposure to technology is key to later success. “I think lack of exposure is one of the major reasons we don’t see more people interested in STEM. People can’t aspire to be something they’ve never heard of or don’t know exists. We should expose kids early, often, and in many different forms.”
The Challenger Learning Center’s programs offer the community a unique experience, for not only does it expose kids to robotics and aeronautical engineering, but it also offers hands-on experiences.
“I’m not sure there’s another place in South Carolina where you can be an astronaut or a member of the mission control team and learn to work together on a space shuttle mission,” adds France. “I honestly can’t even find the words to describe how amazing that experience is. The equipment, the spacesuits, the puzzles, and problem solving — everything about the mission exercise is innovative and unique.”
Community support for the center’s mission comes from its foundation, which was formed in 2015 and is chaired by Columbia native Willa Martin Bailey, a former General Motors executive who is now retired. An articulate and dynamic spokesperson for the foundation, she emphasizes the center’s role in preparing students for careers in the state’s growing aerospace industry. She comes by her enthusiasm naturally as Charles Bolden’s first cousin.
“By stimulating interest in STEM and exposing children to aerospace careers, Challenger increases the flow of students into the workforce pipeline. Aligned with South Carolina curriculum standards, it also nurtures knowledge and skills beneficial to the industry,” she says.
With an annual economic impact of more than $19 billion, the aerospace sector is a major pillar of the state’s economy with more than 500 aerospace-related companies calling South Carolina home. The industry has soared since 2009 when Boeing selected North Charleston for an assembly and delivery facility.
The Ronald E. McNair Center for Aerospace Innovation and Research at USC was established in 2011 to encourage further developments in the rapidly growing industry. The Challenger hero once said, “Whether or not you reach your goals in life depends entirely on how well you prepare for them and how badly you want them.”