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Challenger Learning Center’s New Virtual Space Voyage Goes Nationwide

Photo: Anna Earl

Tallahassee’s Challenger Learning Center is now America’s “Mission Control” for a virtual voyage to Jupiter’s most fascinating moon. Tom Flanigan reports that trip is being enjoyed by school kids across the country.

Challenger Learning Center Executive Director Michelle Personette says it all began as the pandemic shut down the facility’s regular operations.

“In March our education staff pivoted. We had to just like every other business had to make changes and adapt. And when we realized our operations were not going to go back to normal in two weeks or a month or whatever, we realized we still had so many more students needed and wanted to serve.”

Students could no longer avail themselves of the Challenger’s physical facilities. That included the realistic mission control center and simulated space vehicle interior. What emerged in its stead was a whole new and innovative educational program.

“So our education team pivoted and created a virtual space mission simulation, normally, which is reserved for students and teachers who come into our facility. But we created this platform online and we are able to take students and teachers to Europa.”

Europa is one of 79 moons orbiting the planet Jupiter. It’s a little smaller than earth’s moon, and has the smoothest surface of any object so far found in the solar system. Many scientists believe it may have an ocean of water under that smooth surface. That makes it a prime target for explorers and Personette says that’s what Europa Encounter is meant to simulate as realistically as possible.

“We still have our staff dressed in flight suits and we are projecting to the students from our simulator. So our staff is in the simulator and students are seeing our staff in the simulator. It is not the same as being in the simulator, but it’s the next best thing.”

And that flight simulation is not only for in-school and online students in North Florida.

“Tallahassee has given the architecture of this program to Challenger Learning Centers across the nation. Other Challenger Learning Centers are flying this mission with their students in Alaska, and Maine and Massachusetts, and Illinois, and Indiana, New Mexico, and Texas. That’s crazy! And very exciting for us who have a passion for educating students in the STEM subject areas.”

For Personette and the local Challenger Learning Center’s entire crew, it’s a very gratifying development in the midst of a very trying time.

“It’s been difficult and a struggle for us at the Challenger Learning Center, but this, the creation of Europa Encounter, is definitely the highlight and truly shows the strength and determination of our staff to fulfill. Yeah, it makes me smile every time I talk about it.”

Also smiling, the literally thousands of students and teachers across America who are now going along for that incredible interplanetary ride.

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