Space voyages at Challenger Center
For those who are itching to see more of the solar system, a door at the back of Sparks High School serves as a portal to the galaxy. Inside, the Challenger Learning Center of Northern Nevada takes students and other groups on simulated space missions to Mars, the moon and other far-off destinations.
Founded as a non-profit organization by the families of the seven astronauts lost during the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster of Jan. 28, 1986, Challenger Learning Centers provide programs focused on team building and problem-solving in 45 locations around the world. Northern Nevada’s Challenger Center opened in 2014, and will be moving across the valley from Sparks High School to a new location at the National Automobile Museum in Reno early this summer.
The inside of the Challenger Center is set up with a mock spacecraft module, where students role-play the jobs of astronauts. In another room, a mission control center simulates a working space for a team stationed back on hard ground, which could be Earth or another planet, depending on the scenario. The teams include communications officers, navigators, engineers, medical staff, geologists and others—each with specific jobs in the mission.
“It’s a science laboratory where the students are performing actual science experiments with actual science equipment, but it’s also a narrative,” said Paul McFarlane, teacher and lead flight director at the Challenger Center. “It’s a story in which the students are characters. And that’s what I love about it. I love science, but I also love stories. I think this brings it to life for them, because they are taking on those roles.”
McFarlane has been a part of this program for nine years, teaching in classrooms prior to the opening of the Challenger Center. He wears a blue jumpsuit covered in various space-flight patches. Students wear mission attire as well, including headsets, security badges and vests with mission patches.
“I remember seeing a research study that indicated that if students take on certain roles and actually dress in that character, they learn more,” McFarlane said. “They become invested in their role. And afterward, it’s fun to hear them say, ’Oh, I was the doctor on the mission,’ ’I was the engineer on the mission.’ It helps them to see those possibilities for themselves.”
Most of the simulated space missions last approximately 3 hours, and are designed by NASA scientists. The mission curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core state standards, and also helps develop critical thinking and communication skills. McFarlane believes that the program provides a great team-building exercise for any kind of group, and is also great exposure for students who are exploring future career opportunities.
“I think so much of being successful at anything is being able to imagine the possibilities first,” McFarlane said. “I’ve said many times, you’ve got to dream it before you can do it. I think this gives students the opportunity to dream, but in a powerful, realistic way. And then they end up seeing themselves as being successful.”