Kids aren't only learners at space center

Posted: Thursday, January 08, 2004

Commonly thought of as an education site for grade-school and high-school students, the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai was pitched as a training facility for small businesses and big corporations alike during a meeting of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.

"When I first entered the facility, I thought, 'What a wonderful opportunity for business,'" said Sharon Gherman, who has been executive director of the center since July.

Originally created as a living legacy to astronauts lost in the Challenger space shuttle tragedy, 51 learning centers around the United States aim to engage students in science, math and technology.

The centers use simulated space missions such as a rendezvous with a comet or a voyage to Mars, designed to use space as a medium to help students employ scientific and mathematical skills learned in the classroom in a hands-on application.

Students take on roles of crew members with responsibilities ranging from medical and life support to navigation and flight. Some also act as scientists, engineers and mission controllers.

By playing out the mission, each faces challenges of real-life astronauts and uses problem-solving skills, math and science to successfully complete the mission.

"We can also do E-missions, to make the program available to remote locations throughout the state," Gherman said.

"For corporate training, we also developed interview missions," she said.

During the interview mission, employers use the mission simulator, observing and sorting out applicants for a critical position within the company.

Challenger Learning Center staff members, some of whom are professional educators and some former corporate trainers, work with employers to help identify qualities they desire in an employee.

"We can introduce stress or complications to any position in the simulator, so the mission can be altered to see how selected applicants would respond under similar work conditions," Gherman said.

She said the interview mission is a good way to uncover employees' qualities and skills not always apparent during a more traditional interview.

Corporations also can participate in the customary missions similar to those practiced by students.

"We work with the company manager or with corporate trainers to determine the crew roster, placing the people within positions, including medical officer and communications officer," she said.

"What we usually do is first let the corporate team do the mission and fail. Then we train them and have them repeat the mission successfully," she said.

The center also is looking to combine its training missions for businesses with fishing outings, fishing during the prime part of the day when fishing is best, and performing the mission during the other half of the day.

"We're scheduling sessions around the best fishing times from May through September," she told the group of business leaders.

For a small business to participate in the interview mission, the learning center charges $1,500 for the half-day process. Corporations pay $3,000 and may use their own corporate trainers or have trainers provided by the center.

Gherman said the center in Kenai already has completed about 100 corporate training sessions since the facility became operational in 2000.

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