By Mikalee Byerman, special to the RGJ
Current students and teachers are being told to expect a surplus of STEM career opportunities, because not enough students are in the pipeline. Estimates reveal that by 2018, the U.S. will have more than 1.2 million unfilled STEM jobs due to a lack of qualified workers.
Put another way: Currently, there are not enough students following the path to a STEM career to meet the economy’s needs.
As educators are scrambling to address the growing gap, a small group of local scientists, educators and community leaders turned to technology and grant funding, successfully bringing the first NASA-based Challenger Learning Center in the state to an unobtrusive brick building on campus at Sparks High School.
“People learn best through doing,” describes Paul McFarlane, lead flight director, Challenger Learning Center of Northern Nevada. “Simulation technology allows students of all ages to become scientists, doctors and astronauts in one of the most amazing, yet real-world, educational contexts that has ever existed — a NASA spacecraft.”
“It’s about science, math and collaborative learning,” he continues, “but it uses technology and narrative to immerse participants first-hand in experimentation, exploration and learning.”
Simulation technology at Challenger includes both hardware and software that works to transform participants into astronauts in futuristic NASA-based scenarios. These mission simulations run on a combination of computers and servers to deliver what some participants have described as life-changing educational experiences — for over four million people around the world to date.
“Our local center has integrated landing software, iPad surgery stations, computer coding activities and Oculus Rift headsets — along with career specific technologies like pulse oximeters and a reflectance spectrometer — into our missions to engage participants,” McFarlane says of the technology driving the program. “In addition, we’ve acquired one of only two Advanced Spaceflight Labs in the country, and we take the only mobile digital dome planetarium in Nevada out to schools from Gardnerville to Gerlach.”
In the aftermath of the 1986 Challenger accident, the families of the seven deceased astronauts decided to honor their loved ones by carrying on the Challenger crew’s educational mission. Thus was born the national Challenger Center for Space Science Education.
Ultimately the goal for McFarlane and the national non-profit is consistent: to attract students to STEM fields and introduce them to out-of-this-world possibilities.
“Being talked to can’t compare to being immersed in a three-dimensional world where learning is accomplished by doing,” McFarlane says of the Challenger model, which was created collaboratively by NASA and national scientists but is community supported.
“The innovative approach we take engages, educates and inspires students. We couldn’t explore ‘the final frontier’ without technology and innovation.”
Learn more about Challenger Learning Center — and become an astronaut for an evening — at NCET’s Tech Wednesday, Nov. 11, 5:30-7:30 p.m. Children over 8 are welcome. NCET is a member-supported nonprofit producing events to help individuals and businesses explore and use technology.