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Challenger Shuttle Disaster 30 Years Later Challenger Centers Continuing to Honor the Fallen Crew with STEM Education

If you were to ask someone if they remember when the NASA Space Shuttle orbiter Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986, chances are, not only would they remember that day, but they would know exactly where they were when they heard the devastating news.

The Challenger accident took the lives of its seven crew members, including Payload Specialist Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher in space. Much of the nation experienced heartache in the hours, days, weeks and even months following the tragedy.

But in the aftermath of the Challenger accident, the crews families came together, firmly committed to the belief that they must carry on the spirit of their loved ones by continuing the Challenger crews educational mission. Their efforts resulted in the creation of Challenger Center for Space Science Education.

Currently a global network of over 40 centers, including Paducahs center, uses space-themed simulated learning and role-playing strategies to help hundreds of thousands of students each year bring their classroom studies to life and cultivate skills needed for future success in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

One of the students whose life was forever changed by his visit to the Challenger Learning Center at Paducah is Nick Griffith, an elementary school teacher and resident of Johnson County, Ill.

Griffith was 12 years old and a sixth grader at Illinois West Frankfort Central Junior High School when he first walked through the doors of the Challenger Learning Center in Paducah. Nick, now 24, still vividly remembers that first visit.

My field trip to the Challenger Center was one of the most memorable and unique experiences of my young life, Griffith said. As early as middle school, I knew I wanted to teach, but that trip and some other things we did that year in school really solidified my love of science and encouraged me to pursue teaching.

Over the past 12 years, Griffith has fondly reminisced about his experiences at the center many times, and he always wanted to go back. In fall 2014, he got the opportunity to do that by taking his sixth graders from Giant City Elementary School to the center.

I jumped at the chance, he said. I think I was just as excited as they were to get there.

Many of his students already enjoy learning about science, Griffith said. When was able to take them to the Challenger Center, like him, they were amazed with all the hands-on activities and simulations.

Seeing them fall love with science like I did was great. Now I cant wait to take my first graders from Cypress Elementary because they can learn the importance of science and math at an early age and develop a love for that curriculum, he said.

Griffiths first grade class will visit the center on January 28 to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the Challenger accident and once again allow Griffith the opportunity to open the door to STEM education to his students. During the fieldtrip, Griffiths students will participate in various activities such as watching and learning about a shuttle launch, creating astronaut helmets, and making and tasting astronaut food.

Bringing my students to the Challenger Center has brought me full circle with my time there as a sixth grader, Griffith said.

Challenger Learning Center Director Mellisa Duncan said there is nothing more exciting than hearing students like Griffith say, this was the best field trip ever or I love it here.

We know we have a unique program that is a true benefit to our community, Duncan said.

Approximately 80,000 students have attended the Challenger Learning Center at Paducah since it opened in August 2002. Duncan said the fact that many Challenger Centers are reaching the second and third generations after the accident is a true testament to the importance to and love of STEM by students.

Many centers, including ours, are seeing the results of this as many program participants are going on to study the STEM areas in college and pursue STEM careers, said Duncan. With education being so important to the crew, they would be so proud to know their legacy has lived on in this way.

The Challenger Learning Center at Paducah is located on the campus of West Kentucky Community and Technical College. For more information about the centers programming call (270) 534-3101 or visit the Challenger Center website.