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.

Programs at the center are designed to increase student interest in science, engineering, 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...

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