Challenger Learning Center expands programs, trainings

After spending more than a year as chief operating officer at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska, Marnie Olcott said she believes expansion will continue. 


“The center is growing and constantly seeking educational partners,” Olcott said. “Working with the educational community and ensuring programs that benefit students most and fit within the schools’ goals is important.”

The center’s board of directors promoted Olcott last July. Her vision included focusing on professional development, home school programs and linking informal and formal science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. 

Earned revenues and donations cover the operating costs of the center. The amount of donations is small, but Olcott said engineering industry donors, such as BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc. and Tesoro Corp., helped throughout the years.

Challenger is a private 501 (c)(3) non-profit corporation raising part of its operating funds through offered programs and facility rentals.

The center was built in Kenai in 2000.

New training operations added revenue sources. 

Shell Oil Co. transferred ownership of a Modular Egress Training Simulator last year — a large device that simulates underwater disorientation. The center trains industry-related employees in coldwater survival, emergency techniques and platform abandonment dives.

The Kenai Central High School pool houses the device, which Shell operated for the past four years. 

Olcott proposed hiring local residents for METS instruction to the center’s board. She said localizing the training helped the center and the community.

“We feel it’s been a huge benefit not only to the Challenger Learning Center but also to the community,” she said. “The amount of funds that go back into the community because of this training is quite large.”

She said the training is positioned to grow, with possible contracts for military, search and rescue and U.S. Coast Guard training.

The METS required new hires and expanding staff at the center over the past year. Olcott said she is now seeking expansion of the educational staff.

“We really need a director of educational operations,” she said. “Someone that is focused solely on professional and K-12 education.”

The center also expanded its home school programs. Providing STEM education to home school students is important, because it’s often one of the most difficult areas of study for them, Olcott said. They can receive high school credit through the center.

Home school programs include a hands-on science curriculum delivered in a workshop format at the center. The program began Oct. 11. In addition, the center teaches a Linux course, which is an open-source computer operating system. Home school students earn half a high school credit for this course.

The center served 51 home school students in 2011.

Larry Porter, Challenger’s former CEO who worked pro bono for more than four years, continued volunteering at the center in special projects, fundraising and as a member of the board of directors.

In 2006, Porter started running the center like a business, focusing on generating funds rather than relying solely on grants.

“Larry brought us back from the brink, because it was very cash poor,” Olcott said. “As a non-profit that doesn’t receive public funding for operations we’re always struggling to keep the doors open, but also to move forward with our educational programs. 

“The bulk of our revenue comes from earned revenue, from facility rentals and from school and home school programs that we do.”

Receiving no operational funding from the state, Kenai Peninsula Borough, KPB school district or NASA, the center actively seeks competitive grants. Specific projects receive the grant money.

NASA awarded a grant to the center and other organizations three years ago. The grant was dedicated to outreach, and the center’s Curriculum Director Kathy East developed climate change programs using the grant. 

Concepts taught during the programs fit state and national standards for grade level expectations, East said. 

“I have the fun job of coming up with neat ideas,” she said. “Figuring out how to make STEM education fun for the kids while still getting essential concepts across.”

Education instructors work with students examining four subjects relating to climate change: changes in temperature, arctic sea ice, effects on animal migration and effects on education. 

The curriculum is taught using what Olcott referred to as a “magical globe.” The globe, also known as an iGlobe, is a spherical display screen. NASA grant partners the University of Alaska Museum of the North and professors at the University of Alaska Fairbanks created videos for the globe using data to show students climate change trends. 

Educators from the center will visit Unalaska, Bethal, Dillingham and Point Lay. 

Working with like-minded organizations is key to the center’s success, Olcott said. 

“I’m a great fan of partnerships and creating more strategic partnerships for the future across the state,” she said. “We’re all here to help students, and it’s important that we work together for that end goal.”



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