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Interview: June Scobee Rodgers on The Challenger Center and Star Challengers: Moonbase Crisis

John Ottinger: What is the Challenger Center?

June Scobee Rodgers: The Challenger Centers for Space Science Education — an international, not-for-profit education organization — was founded in 1986 by the families of the Challenger 51-L crew. Dick Scobee, the commander of the crew, was my husband. Christa McAuliffe was the beloved school teacher assigned to the shuttle flight, which gave the mission the designation “Teacher in Space.”

Created to continue the mission of the 51-L crew, our educational programs use space as a theme and the power of simulations as a teaching tool to motivate students to learn, while helping them develop critical life skills. Each year, almost 500,000 students and teachers experience the hands-on challenges and excitement of a Learning Center program.

By 2011, we will have over 50 Challenger Learning Centers, located in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and S. Korea. Learning Centers can be found in schools, universities, science centers, museums, and public stand-alone spaces.

More than a classroom of computers and high-tech equipment, Challenger Center is a system that that makes learning exciting and provides innovative tools for teaching. Individuals, foundations, corporations, and companies work in a team effort to create the experience for their schools, science centers, or colleges and universities. It takes education into the 21st century space age of communication and technology.

JO: What could a student expect from a trip to a Challenger Center?

JSR: Each of the 50 Challenger Centers has a Mission Control Room and computerized simulator orbiting Space Station, where the students undergo an adventure that requires them to use knowledge, high-tech equipment, and team-building skills.

Students travel to Challenger Learning Centers for a different kind of field trip outside the boundaries of our planet. Each student is assigned to a team—Medical, Life Support, Isolation, Remote, Probe, Navigation, Communications, or Data. Half of the students work at Mission Control, while others are “transported” to the Space Station.

They fly a simulated space mission into the future where they are challenged to apply skills in math and science they learned in their classrooms, and they also discover the importance of intense teamwork. They work together as engineers, physicians, scientists, navigators, and communicators to chart flight patterns, assemble an electronic probe, solve oxygen and water shortage problems, monitor the health of the crew and solve problems in a high-tech environment in a true-to-life experience. In the process, they increase critical thinking abilities and learn about the fields of science and math.

Most of all they learn about themselves and how to work with others in the world around them. (And they find the adventure engrossing and exciting enough that they forget they’re in school!)

JO: What is the state of science education today and what can teachers do to promote science and space science in particular? How could an English teacher (like myself) work with the Challenger Center?

JSR: Our chairman of the Challenger Center board of directors, former astronaut Scott Parazynski, M.D. states, “Our nation is in a state of emergency when it comes to science and math education. The pipeline of American students to pursue hard science has dwindled for a variety of reasons, including “borification” of science by teaching to standardized test requirements, dramatic reductions in field trips and hands-on activities because of busing costs, and the allure of bigger financial payouts in other industries like business and law.”

In order to draw more bright minds into science and engineering, educators have to offer opportunities to see and experience the thrill of exploration and discovery first hand. Memorizing factual details is a necessary form of learning in many instances, but creative problem solving and critical thinking are better fostered through participatory experiences like those offered at Challenger Learning Centers.

During the first year after the loss of the Challenger Space Shuttle, I met with leaders in our country in government, education, media, business and industry to gain their support, but more important to learn from them first hand how they would structure the student experience. Walter Cronkite, the well respected and famous CBS news anchor during the Apollo years, asked me if we would include opportunities in communication for students. I assured him the students would have to read, listen and communicate the results of their research and hands-on experiences. Though math and science are at the heart of the Challenger Center experience, the tools of technology and skills of communication are equally important.

We never dreamed the first Challenger Center created in Houston would grow into such a vibrant, worldwide network of learning centers that today reaches across the USA, up to Canada, and around the world to Europe and Asia. That it would be recognized by the Department of Education and Dept of Labor, NASA and others with awards for truly making a difference in the lives of children, for advancing science literacy, and for inspiring students to pursue careers in science, math, technology, engineering and education.

No awards mean more to me than stepping inside the doors of a Center where children are participating in a mission to the Moon or Mars, or to save planet Earth. On their faces, and in their excitement, I see the spirit of the beloved Challenger crew. I remember the Challenger crew’s dedication as they trained for their journey into space, and I see youngsters experiencing that same thrill as they learn something new about space or how to accomplish a difficult task during their mission.

Our goal is to help create a scientifically literate population that can thrive in a world that’s increasingly driven by information, knowledge, and technology. We hope that the Challenger Center Experience fosters in students a long-term interest in math, science, and technology.

Mission content is structured to support the National Science Education Standards, as well as national standards in mathematics, geography, technology and language arts.

JO: What is the goal of the Star Challenger series? Why is the Challenger Center publishing novels?

JSR: It’s another way to reach students, to inspire them and motivate them to consider their opportunities to help their planet and to see that a new generation needs to consider the fields of science and engineering, technology and math as they grow older. Also, the series shows them the excitement and adventure of real science.

[Editors Note: Dr. Rodgers sent me this email from Grace, a girl who was inspired by reading Star Challengers:

Thank you for giving us the STAR CHALLENGERS MOONBASE CRISIS book! I finished it this morning and was glued to it until I did. I am giving this book 10 stars! Do you have any plans for making a sequel? If you are, I am really exited. :-) I am going to try and learn about three things this month, electricity, the human body and motors and engines. Kind of what the book said to do, only I am doing this for my learning benefit. The book is a great motivator. I think it would be cool to learn a little about three things every month, and expand my horizon. Well, I have to get going. Thank you so much again. Grace, age 12]

JO: What age group is the target audience for this novel and why?

JSR: The series of books were written for the target audience of the ages of students that attend a CLC, 9 to 99, but the reading level and age of the characters are most targeted toward 10-16 year olds–exactly the age when they need to see the possibilities of science.

JO: Why choose to write a science fiction instead of a realistic fiction novel?

JSR:The stories are realistic, but very cleverly step into the realm of the unknown future through time-travel. The future belongs to this next generation. Why not challenge them to aspire to creating a better future for themselves and generations to follow?

JO: Why tap Rebecca Moesta and Kevin J. Anderson to write this trilogy?

JSR:We were introduced to each other by mutual friends. I’ve always gone to the best and brightest for advice and assistance, so naturally I went to this brilliant couple with my idea, and we all developed the series together.

JO: The characters come from a diversity of backgrounds and have different personal struggles?

JSR:The teenagers are delightfully well developed. We learn to admire them as they overcome problems and resolve issues and learn to work together as a team accomplishing their mission established by the mysterious Commander Zota.

JJ is a feisty, curious and adventurous teenager whose dream is to be the first girl to step upon the moon’s surface.

Her younger brother Dyl has lost confidence in his abilities after being injured in a car accident. He was hit by a girl driving while texting, and now has to use crutches for mobility. But the moon adventure introduces him to freedoms both physically and emotionally that he never could have imagined.

King, an African American, is a natural born leader, with good instincts and resourceful skills that he puts to good use helping the others, using his well-honed survival skills.

Song-ye is an Ambassador’s daughter from South Korea, accustomed to being chauffered in limousines and catered to as an only child. She has no friends or pets, but eventually learns the value and joy of team work and helping others.

JO: Why was it important to show a diversity of lives and backgrounds for this tale?

JSR:These teenagers represent who we are nationally and globally. They are rich and poor, and diverse in culture and heritage. They are delightful people who change and grow with each new adventure.

JO: What research was required to compose this novel?

JSR:Certainly a review of activities that take place at a Challenger Learning Center Moon scenario, but also a look into time travel, space travel, Apollo moon missions, NASA vehicle and technology inventions.

JO: The novel mentions there are lots of things we can learn from studying space, but is not really specific. What are some of the things we have learned from space science, and what do you forsee us learning in the future?

JSR: Space science represents all the sciences: biology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, technology and engineering. From the research and application of any of the sciences to advance humanity is an achievement in itself. But it is more. The spirit of exploration and discovery have shaped our nation. Our space pioneers, not unlike America’s early explorers took risks to make discoveries to advance civilization and create opportunities for a better life upon this planet for generations to follow. Without risks, there’s no discovery, no new knowledge, no bold adventure; all of which help the human spirit to soar.

JO: If I am a student interested in space science, what are some books or articles I should read? What can I do outside of school to learn more about space?

JSR: Students interested in space science are naturally curious. They will want to delve into the sciences including astronomy, and seek opportunities to apply the knowledge they learned, maybe by building their own rockets, using their own telescopes, or microscopes. If the opportunity exists, they should visit science museums and planetariums and of course, the Challenger Learning Centers. Delving into the real-world history of space flight is motivating as is reading current science fiction stories created by Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta, or former science fiction giants like Robert Heinlein, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov. Check out the web sites: Challenger.org and StarChallengers.com.

JO: Why is it important for humanity to keep reaching for the stars?

JSR: When we reach for stars, what are we expressing? Is it persistence to keep going? Or a more determined reach that overcomes obstacles like perseverance? Is it to triumph over adversity, or simply the passion of fulfilling a dream?

When we lift up our eyes to the heavens, we learn more about the creation and can marvel at the creator. It can quench our thirst for exploration and open the door to discovery, wonder and belonging. Just as impressive is the ability of a person to hold an idea to study, research and expand on . . .


JUNE SCOBEE RODGERS is the widow of Challenger Space Shuttle Commander Dick Scobee. A tireless proponent of the space program, June is intent on fostering a new generation of students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. She serves as the Founding Chairman of the Board and as a Founding Director for Challenger Center for Space Science Education. Holding a PH.D. from Texas A&M University and a Master’s from Chapman College, both in Curriculum and Instruction, she has taught in every grade-level classroom from Kindergarten through college. June will oversee the creation of free lesson plans and other materials to support each Star Challengers novel, allowing this entertaining series to be used as an engaging teaching tool inside the classroom.

REBECCA MOESTA is an award-winning, New York Times bestselling young adult author who has written for Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek, as well as the original trilogy Crystal Doors, coauthored with Kevin J. Anderson.

KEVIN J. ANDERSON is the #1 international bestselling author of nearly a hundred novels, best known for his Dune novels coauthored with Brian Herbert, his Star Wars or X-Files novels, or his Saga of Seven Suns series.

Find Rebecca and Kevin online at www.wordfire.com.