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From Grief Comes a Great Amount of Good

Challenger Center Carries on a Mission

In the aftermath of the shuttle Columbia's disintegration, Alexandria Rotary Club learned of the positives which have blossomed from a similar disaster 17 years ago.

Laura Larson, manager, Challenger Learning Center of Greater Washington, brought a message of "How we help students to reach for the stars." The idea of the Center was born just after the tragic explosion of Challenger, moments after liftoff at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It officially opened its doors in 1994.

One of those aboard Challenger was Christie McAuliffe, the first teacher to become an astronaut. It was her dream to teach students from space about the wonders of space travel and the potential benefits to the human race.

"The families of the astronauts on that mission felt very strongly about keeping Christie's mission going," Larson said. "Our main focus is on students."

Headquartered at 1250 N. Pitt St. in Alexandria, the Center views it's mission not as an add on to other curricular endeavors but as an "add in," Larson stressed. "We get no state funding. We receive all our funds through grants, gifts, and the sale of our products. We are a non-profit organization," said Larson.

The local Center is one of 47 worldwide. It not only caters to students but also to corporate needs in both the space program and as a means of building team decision making capabilities.

"In addition to increasing student interests in science, math, and technology, we also conduct professional development workshops," Larson explained. "Our teachers go through special training to prepare them for both student projects and organizational team building."

WHEN A GROUP enters the Center they also enter the world of NASA. They don special outfits and they are assigned individual tasks which they carry out during a simulated flight mission. Then they are critiqued, individually and as a team.

"In the case of the students these experiences support existing classroom studies," Larson stated. "It is a full day of personal and group development."

At the core of the Center's program is the mission simulator. There are three scenarios. Each supports state and local curriculum requirements in science, mathematics, language arts, and technology, according to Center literature.

The simulator "provides a realistic mock-up of Mission Control and an orbiting space station." Students can simulate one of three experiences: Rendezvous with a Comet; Return to the Moon; or Voyage to Mars.

During their "journey," participants maneuver real robot arms, locate stars, grapple with emergencies, scan computer databases, and assemble space probes. It all takes place over a two hour time span.

"Each mission simulation is $400 per class or group of up to 34 individuals," Larson explained. The Center also offers a one week space science program throughout each summer geared to fifth through seventh grade students.

SUMMER 2003 will offer a program entitled, "The Wright Stuff," in celebration of the 100th anniversary of flight by the Wright brothers. It will feature two program themes: 1. Fly to the Future, "an exploration of man's fascination with flight;" and 2. Inventors Wanted, "an exploration of inventions from the ancient to the future." One week at the camp costs $350 per child.

Other programs offered by the Center include:

* Two weekend party plans that transport guests to the outer rims of the universe.

* Two-hour public programs available to community groups.

* Adult Mission programs geared to teaching team members to develop a vision and how to work together to accomplish that vision.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Following her presentation, Larson addressed the following inquiries:

<lst>Question — How do you get students involved?

Answer — "We work closely with both Alexandria and Fairfax County schools as well as private schools. Most who come to the Center come in groups."

Question — What are the ages of most students?

Answer — "Students are mostly from middle school, primarily sixth grade."

Question — What about the Center's response to the families of the Columbia crew?

Answer — "They have been contacted by Challenger family members but there has been no formalized action. They (Columbia family members) are still working their way through their grief."