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Hammond’s Challenger center dealing with tighter budget

St. Mary's Crown Point 8th-grader MarisWright 14 (right) communicates with spacecraft from Mars Control during missiChallenger Learning Center Northwest IndianHammond

St. Mary's of Crown Point 8th-grader Marisa Wright, 14, (right) communicates with the spacecraft from Mars Control during a mission at the Challenger Learning Center of Northwest Indiana in Hammond, Ind. Thursday December 20, 2012. At left is Selena Vasquez, also 14. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 28, 2012 7:06PM



HAMMOND — The Challenger Learning Center of Northwest Indiana may need to tighten its belt, but the center still offers the chance for students to explore science and mathematics skills like an astronaut.

The center is one of 48 throughout the globe, most located in the United States. Three operate in Indiana, but one plans to close at the end of the school year.

With schools facing tighter budgets, it’s becoming more difficult for classes to head to the Challenger Learning Center, said Becky Manis, the executive director of the center.

“There’s a slight change in the number of schools that come to us,” Manis said, “The effects are funneled through the number of schools that plan missions, and our summer camp numbers are as robust as they used to be.”

But it’s still scheduling missions, unlike the Brownsburg Challenger Learning Center, which will close its doors after the end in May.

When the Hammond center opened in 1999, eight school districts in the region contributed to an endowment fund, which draws interest on the fund to help with daily operations. But the recession has caused lower interest rates, requiring a little bit of belt tightening.

The schools that participated in the endowment can send a class to the center free of charge once a year, but costs of transportation are still a burden. Class sizes also provide problems that require creative solutions.

“We’re always looking at our operation,” Manis said, “It’s a healthy nudge to investigate what we’re doing and look at what else we can offer.”

Having multiple simulations allows larger class sizes to split into two missions. They’ve also launched lessons for younger children.

Recently, the center heard that they would test a new program designed by the Challenger Center for Space Science Education in Virginia. The simulation will be geared towards high school grades.

“We’re one of a few in the nation that will test it out,” Manis said, “I just heard about it recently, and I don’t know many details, but it’s pretty exciting.”

About 85% of their clientele comes from class visits, but the center also opens the second weekend of every month and offers tours of the planetarium and events.

Manis has heard from some teachers over the years who had to cancel their annual trip.

“I’ve had friends who are in the field say they can only do two field trips this year,” she said, “or they can’t get help from the PTO.”

Recently, St. Mary’s of Crown Point visited the center, completing a mission to send a probe to astronauts on Mars.

“I’m fortunate to be at a private school whose parents support hands-on experiences,” said Rachel Baker, the seventh and eighth grade science teacher at St. Mary’s. “It’s so important for them to have this hands-on experience.”

Baker also said she has friends in public school districts who seek out grants and fundraising opportunities to pay for the trip.

For Karen Gross, the sixth and seventh grade science teacher at Grimmer Middle School in Schererville, the school has families pay a piece of the cost. If student can’t afford to go, the school or volunteers step in to help.

“It really hasn’t been a major issue for us at all,” Gross said.

Plus, the students enjoy the hands-on experience.

“Usually on a field trip they’re just observing,” Gross said, “But here, they are the field trip. They’re assigned jobs, we cover the state standards, and it’s a good hands-on experience for them. They get to be an astronaut for a day, that’s pretty cool.”



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