A group picture of STAR students with Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman in front of the Challenger Learning Center.

Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman joined Students Teaching Astro Research (STARS) at the Challenger Learning Center of Kentucky for an In-Flight Education Downlink in collaboration with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronauts and officials. Photo Courtesy of the Challenger Learning Center, Aug. 22, 2022.

Now in its 23rd year, the Challenger Learning Center of Kentucky has a longstanding history of science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) education. 

“Our mission is to get young people excited about STEAM education at an early age,” said Director Tom Cravens.

Located in the eastern region of Kentucky, the center’s work is one of bringing access and opportunity to youth in its immediate surroundings of Appalachia and across the Commonwealth.

On Aug. 22, the center hosted an In-Flight Education Downlink in collaboration with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronauts and officials. In attendance were Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman and former Gov. Paul Patton, along with other leaders from the surrounding community and region.

The event was student-oriented, allowing representatives from 13 eastern Kentucky districts – Breathitt County, Harlan County, Harlan Independent, Hazard Independent, Jackson Independent, Knott County, Lee County, Leslie County, Letcher County, Perry County, Pike County, Owsley County and Wolfe County – to ask Astronaut Jessica Watkins at the International Space Station (ISS) questions.

“To watch their faces during the Downlink – especially the students who had their questions asked – their faces just lit up because they got to talk to an astronaut on the ISS. They were so excited about that,” said Jackie Caudill, flight director with missions, STEAM specialist and robotics advisor.

The 27 students who participated in the event are part of a group known as Students Teaching Astro Research (STARS). The group focuses on learning about space and teaching their fellow classmates about their own experiences and learning.

Caudill said the event allowed a shift in focus away from flooding and toward a more positive direction, not just for the students but also for their communities.

“Right before the Downlink, all that tragic flooding happened in our region. And the Downlink itself was one of the first positive, uplifting events that happened post-flood. And I think our region really needed that,” she said. “Not only for our students that participated but the district leads, their districts and their families. I think it was just a positive thing all the way around.”

Student participants received a flight jacket after the event with a specially designed STARS patch.

Despite community challenges, the center finds a path to efficiency. The crew came together when the center’s interactions with students halted in 2020.

“During COVID-19, which was a tragic time for everyone when nothing was going on, schools weren’t in session, and so forth, we used that time very efficiently here at the center,” Cravens said.

A crowd sitting in chairs watches a presentation at the Challenger Learning Center of Kentucky.

During the In-Flight Education Downlink, students from 13 school districts had the opportunity to ask Astronaut Jessica Watkins at the International Space Station questions. Photo courtesy of the Challenger Learning Center, Aug. 22, 2022.

The center gave its operation a facelift and update with funds obtained through grant writing and private investments in the facility.

“We started in 1999, so March of 2023 will be 24 years that we’ve been here. We have updated, of course, and brought on new programs and so forth over the years, but this was our most comprehensive upgrade,” Cravens said.

Almost the entire center saw upgrades of some sort, from cosmetic changes to equipment replacements.

Cosmetic changes included new carpet and new chairs in Mission Control that hadn’t been replaced in 23 years but were needed as the center moves forward.

“We’ve been here 23 years, but we want to be here 23 years from now as well,” said Cravens.

“I just feel like that we are reopening after COVID-19 with an almost completely new center, because we upgraded our simulations or mission simulations. So that means a new software platform, new computer system.”

While July flooding resulted in delays to a previously anticipated uninterrupted school year, the center has continued to serve students and youth emerging from the pandemic.

“Even the first part of their school year was thrown off track by the flooding. But now, maybe they’re back on track for a normal school year,” said Cravens.

The improvements and upgrades prefaced major plans for the center’s outreach and work. Caudill and Cravens said the center’s vision for the future is bold.

“I think STEAM education is great for our area. I think living here, sometimes parents and students feel like they’re very limited in their choices for a career, but there are so many STEAM careers out there and we have some wonderful schools right in our own backyard who can promote those and make those careers possible,” Caudill said.

“We also plan to invite our STARS to continue with the program,” she said. “We’re hopeful to be able to continue the program.”

As the center emerges from challenges, it plans to continue its expansion by offering additional events for educational communities. For more information, visit the Challenger Learning Center of Kentucky website.