Weekly Feature



2012-11-22 / Education

Queen of Heaven students simulate space mission


Sixth-grade students from Queen of Heaven Elementary School sit in mission control at The Dresser-Rand Challenger Learning Center in Allegany. Since the center opened in June 2009, more than 6,500 students from 17 counties in New York and Pennsylvania have participated in its educational programs. Sixth-grade students from Queen of Heaven Elementary School sit in mission control at The Dresser-Rand Challenger Learning Center in Allegany. Since the center opened in June 2009, more than 6,500 students from 17 counties in New York and Pennsylvania have participated in its educational programs. One of the first things visitors notice when observing a simulated space mission at the Dresser Rand Challenger Learning Center in Allegany, N.Y., is how attentive the participants are to the tasks that are presented to them.

In the case of more than two dozen sixth-graders from Queen of Heaven School, who had traveled 70 miles for the experience, the level of concentration was so intense that most of the students didn’t even notice when author/ educator/speaker and Challenger Center founder June Scobee Rodgers entered Mission Control to watch their journey in progress.

Rodgers’ husband, Francis “Dick” Scobee, was the commander of Space Shuttle Challenger’s STS-51-L mission. Along with the rest of the family members of the Challenger disaster of 1986, a decision was made to carry forward the mission of their lost loved ones. To this day, they continue to see the results of the idea they conceived more than a quarter of a century ago.

Currently, there are 48 Challenger Learning Centers worldwide, reaching more than 400,000 middle-school-aged students and 40,000 teachers each year. That’s more than 4 million students who have been impacted by a teaching model that gives them the chance to become astronauts and engineers and solve real world problems using space simulation and role-playing strategies.

“In 1986, just after the Challenger accident, my focus was on bringing the Challenger families together and to respond to the mission of the teacher in space,” Rodgers said. “We knew we couldn’t launch the satellites or conduct scientific experiments in space, but we thought perhaps we could continue the educational mission because so many children around the world were waiting for those lessons.

“I thought it could help heal the families and in the process, help heal the nation and provide a much-needed opportunity for the lessons involving science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM education,” she said. “They’ve grown beyond my imagination. I would’ve never guessed that we would go this far. It’s amazing how many people it has reached.”

One of those teachers who has been positively impacted and who has wholeheartedly embraced the Challenger Learning Center mission isQueenofHeavensixth-grade instructor Caroline Thomas, who described Challenger crew member and fellow teacher Christa McAuliffe as an “an inspiration to many educators and students.”

Thomas is a graduate of Medaille College, where she majored in science and reading. She began her teaching career in 1992 and has been working at Queen of Heaven since 2009 where she has served as a science and health instructor and an adviser for the Junior High Science Club.

“Our students were very excited about this event and the fact that there is a place where they can experience what it’s like to work in mission control and on a spaceship,” she said. “It’s all possible because June Scobee Rodgers and the family members of the crew of Space Shuttle Challenger wanted future generations to learn and experience what their loved ones did as members of the space program.”

The last chance to study Comet Halley from an Earth-orbiting vehicle was in 1986, where one of Space Shuttle Challenger’s scientific endeavors was to observe this well-known, short-period comet in the Comet Halley Active Monitoring Program.

Because of the explosion of Challenger and the loss of the shuttle's crew, the only observations of Comet Halley that were achieved at that time were conducted from five international unmanned space probes that flew by or through the tail of the comet.

Although plenty of data was acquired from these probes, it is more useful to have humans on such a mission to troubleshoot and make real-time decisions about the course of the mission that would not otherwise be possible.

Enter Queen of Heaven’s sixth-grade class. In the Challenger Learning Center simulation, these 27 students were presented with an exciting opportunity to locate and learn about Comet Halley as a group.

“Prior to our mission, we studied Comet Halley and the part the astronauts onboard Challenger would have played in their mission,” Thomas said. “Scientists speculate that comets may contain elements and material that originated at the formation of our solar system. Someof these materials may be the building blocks of life. From the exploration of these materials, we may be able to learn more about the beginning of our solar system and the beginning of life as we know it.”

In addition to the Comet Halley voyage, part of the students’ day was spent participating in the Great Rocket Design Challenge, a team-building exercise where small groups design, construct, test, and launch air-powered rockets using real world, problem solving simulation.

At the end of the day, the consensus from the class was unanimously positive.

“Our students described it as the best educational trip they have ever been on,” Thomas said. “We accomplished our mission.”

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