Eve Ferguson, a sixth-grader from Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School, runs a simulation during a field trip at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai last Thursday.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
It was about 10:30 a.m. and Kalifornsky Beach Elementary school students on a mission to rendezvous with a comet and collect data had an emergency on their hands. They were running out of oxygen, fast. Alarms urgently buzzed and students bustled between valves and computer monitors. But with the help of K-Beach students back at mission control on Earth, the ship’s student astronaut crew restored oxygen to their space vessel and narrowly escaped disaster.
Well, almost. According to the ship’s gauges, the crew went without oxygen for 10 minutes. But lucky for them they were participating in a simulated space mission at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai and all would go home alive and well.
At the center students can enact realistic space missions in rooms transformed into the bridge of a space ship and a mission control center, but due to an end in federal funds at the beginning of the year, the center is readjusting a different set of valves to restore its own mission.
The center must make some critical changes, but alarms are not buzzing yet, said Larry Porter, who become the center’s new executive director at the beginning of the year.
The Challenger Center is part of a program created in 1986 by the families of astronauts who died in the Challenger 51-L mission as a way of engaging students in science, math and technology.
Students leave the Challenger Learning Center after a space simulator mission accomplished.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
Students from all over Alaska travel to the center to participate in workshops and simulated space missions that encourage them to apply their math and science skills to building projects and other tasks such as launching probes into space.
Porter said that the center is an asset not only to the children who utilize it but to the nation as a whole.
“We’re beginning to fall behind as a nation in technology,” he said. “If (the Challenger Center) can stimulate students to become more interested in math, science and technology, we’ve done our job.”
Before 2006 federal money funded approximately 50 percent of the center’s budget, but now the center must rely entirely on donations, mission simulations and room rentals to generate revenue, Porter said.
“There’s a very serious financial problem, but we’re working through it,” he said. “I see no reason why we won’t continue to operate.”
The center is cutting costs by reducing its Internet bill, travel expenses and energy costs.
“As you can see we don’t have any lights on,” Porter said.
Fortunately windows in Porter’s office and adjacent offices provide natural lighting during the day.
The Challenger Center has cut its budget from $700,000 to $450,000, but few of the costs being cut will have any impact on the resources offered by the center, he said.
“A good part of that would have been my salary,” said Porter, who has agreed to work for the center pro bono.
However, the center is not cutting any of the four full-time and 15 part-time positions to reduce costs.
In addition to cutting costs the center will aggressively pursue revenues.
“The main thing is we operate as a business,” he said, describing how the center’s financial strategy has changed since the beginning of the year.
A large part of the budget difference will be made up for by wiser spending and a more aggressive utilization of the center’s space by increasing the number of conferences and other events that provide revenue through room rentals, said Stephanie Green, business manager for the center.
In addition to the rooms dedicated to simulated missions and workshops, the Challenger Center includes two dorms that accommodate up to 38 people and a conference room featuring four projectors and wireless Internet, according to Porter.
The center has also requested assistance from the city of Kenai to pay for utility bills for the next six months, or up to $24,000 worth of utility expenses, Porter said.
Porter said that despite budget crunching the mood at the center remains optimistic.
“We’re not looking backward, we’re looking forward,” he said.
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