The Colorado Springs, Colo., eighth-graders stared intently at their manuals, confident they would complete their mission. But this was no ordinary school assignment: During a recent visit to the city’s new Challenger Learning Center, the students used their math, science, and communications skills to successfully probe a comet’s tail.

Programs at the center, which opened in September, are designed to increase student interest in science, math, and technology. The center targets middle school students because they are at the age where they begin to choose their career focus.

The students—half of them boys and half girls—were the first to try the “Rendezvous with Comet Encke” space mission at the center. Other missions have students use their math, science, and technology skills to explore the moon, build a satellite, or rescue a third-world community from an imminent natural disaster.

Organizers said the program motivates students to excel in science. Girls, particularly those of middle school age, often start disconnecting from math and science, which also prompted organizers to target this particular age group.

Nancy Rauenzahn, one of two teachers working as a commander at the center, said few programs are this successful at engaging both genders.

“If you hook the girls, the boys are there automatically,” Rauenzahn said. “The program works elaborately on communication skills for all students.”

The educational intent of the program seems to be rubbing off. “I don’t really like science usually, but this is really interesting,” said Mindy Quintana, 13. “I like how it feels so realistic.”

At the center, students work together in jobs such as communications, navigation, and life support during a simulated Space Shuttle mission. Crises often arise that require the teams to work quickly and communicate solutions or be forced to abort the mission.

Quintana, who was in charge of radioing messages for her group, said she would be much more interested in science if she could do activities like those at the Challenger Learning Center more often.

The center has rooms that look like the Mission Control Center at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the International Space Station. There is also a briefing room for students.

Colorado Springs is now the latest home to one of 45 Challenger Learning Centers in the United States. Each center is owned and operated by independent, nonprofit organizations in their local communities. The Colorado Springs center is operated by the Colorado Consortium for Earth and Space Science Education.

Nearly $2 million in grants, donations, and some state funds helped build the Colorado Springs center, which is next to Challenger Middle School. The center is open to students throughout the West, but most mission sessions are booked for this year.

Links:

Challenger Center for Space Science Education
http://www.challenger.org

Challenger Learning Center of Colorado Springs
http://www.clccs.org