When Norm Thagard left NASA in 1995 to join the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, he had one big question for his dean — What is my new mission?
Along with his role as a professor of electrical engineering, Thagard was the college’s director of college relations.
“I asked Dean C.J. “Marty” Chen, ‘What does a director of college relations do? What do you expect me to accomplish?’” said Thagard, an FSU alumnus. “He said he expected me to get kids turned on to engineering so we would one day see them as students coming into our college.”
Thagard’s solution: The Challenger Learning Centers, a network of science-education facilities around the country built to inspire students.
Almost three decades since that conversation, and 20 years since the Challenger Learning Center of Tallahassee opened, it’s been mission accomplished.
The center marked its 20th anniversary Saturday, and a crowd of longtime supporters visited the facility in downtown Tallahassee to celebrate its legacy and hear from some of the people who helped make it a reality.
The site is the K-12 outreach facility of the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, the joint engineering college of Florida A&M University and Florida State University. It hosts thousands of students every year, who visit to see educational videos and demonstrations in the IMAX theater and planetarium, practice teamwork on a space mission simulator and more.
“Our mission has been to inspire students to get excited about math and science, but also exploration in general,” said Director Alan Hanstein. “Whether it’s the Challenger mission, the James Webb Space Telescope, blue whales, butterflies or anything else, we’re going to encourage them to go out and learn more about it. If you think about a middle school student 20 years ago —they’re in their career now. It’s really exciting to think that we’ve made that kind of impact.”
Challenger Centers were born from tragedy. In 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart shortly after launch, killing the seven-person crew. The families of those astronauts started the Challenger Center for Space Science Education to honor their loved ones and carry on their endeavors. Today, there are Challenger Learning Centers across the U.S. as well as international centers, all a living memorial to the Challenger crew.
The Tallahassee center has the same vision — inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers who could help plan the space missions of the future.
“At that time, and it’s still true today, we didn’t have enough American kids going into STEAM subjects, and we don’t have enough going into aerospace/aviation specifically,” said Captain Winston Scott, an FSU alumnus and former NASA astronaut who served on the center’s first board. “The beauty of the learning center is that it is hands-on. Students actually simulate doing a space mission and doing experiments in space. We hope that captures the imagination. That’s what it’s all about.”
As the center’s early supporters shepherded the idea into reality, they turned to private donors and local, state and federal governments for help.
Former Florida Legislature member Marjorie Turnbull was an early proponent. She recalled a trip to a Challenger Center in Tennessee that illustrated for her the importance of the center’s immersive approach.
“The middle school students, who are not noted for their long attention span, had been told a group with two astronauts was coming,” she said. “We walked through, and not one child looked up. They were in the middle of a mission and were so absorbed. I remember thinking, we need to have this.”
Today, the center serves about 50,000 students in a 68-county region in Florida, Georgia and Alabama, who visit to practice hands-on teamwork and problem solving.
The center has hosted an array of memorable moments and esteemed guests since opening. One recent example was a visit from NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. Nelson joined FSU President Richard McCullough and FAMU President Larry Robinson for a tour, where he talked to engineering students about their research, encouraged middle school students learning about space, and spoke to the public about his time as an astronaut and NASA’s goals for the future. Students had the unique opportunity to engage in discussions with Nelson, gaining insights into his experiences as an astronaut and the latest developments in space exploration.
Another highlight was a special screening of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” for elementary students from Leon County Schools. The movie’s hero used science and technology to solve problems and help her society — the work of an engineer.
“The Challenger Center is an integral part of the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering,” said Suvranu De, dean of the joint college. “So many scientists and engineers started on their academic journeys because they were inspired as children. The center is helping to spark that inspiration and carry on the legacy of the Challenger crew, who dedicated their lives to pushing the boundaries of knowledge and discovery.”
As Challenger Center leaders look to the future, they envision an improved facility and robust outreach program that can continue the work of the past two decades, Hanstein said.
At the site in downtown Tallahassee, that means upgrades to the building’s infrastructure and exhibit space, including more hands-on exhibits that guests can use whenever they visit. Challenger staff will also make more outreach visits, bringing the experience of discovery to students who can’t make the trip to the center.
“Our goal is to continue making the learning experience at the center the best it can be for everyone we interact with,” Hanstein said. “During the past 20 years, so many people have helped make the Challenger Center a worthy living memorial to the astronauts of the Challenger mission, and it’s our honor to continue that work.”