The Challenger Learning Center of Alaska creates an illusion of space travel on the ground in Kenai. Soon students around Alaska will be able to share that virtual thrill without leaving their own schools.
Monday, the Alaska congres-sional delegation announced a grant award of $288,980 to fund the center's Virtual Voyage Program.
"We can go out to rural Alaska without them having to come to us. This will cut down costs enormously," said Daniela Martian, the center's director.
The new study unit will connect Bush students to the Kenai facility via Internet. A "flight director" at the space science center will work with students on a real-time simulated mission using online streaming video, Martian said.
It would be ideal if the students could all come to Kenai to experience the state-of-the-art flight simulators at the center, but travel costs are a prohibitive barrier, especially for off-road villages, she said.
"This is an awesome alternative," Martian said.
About 35 percent of Alaska's students live in villages or towns accessible only by air or boat, according to a press release from the congressional delegation.
The distance learning project will allow the Challenger Center to reach more of those remote areas.
The Virtual Voyage is a "module" of teaching materials and equipment developed at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. It resembles the "missions" students and teachers "fly" at the Kenai facility but is designed for use away from the Challenger simulators.
The staff in Kenai will learn how to use the materials and will show other teachers how to use them with school children. Then they will travel to designated hub communities in off-road parts of Alaska to train teachers.
"I expect to see some interesting places, some beautiful places," Martian said.
The first steps, now that the grant has been approved, is for the staff to get the modules and training and to identify the hub communities, she said.
Hub sites will be selected based on how easy it would be for village students to access them and on availability of 56K Internet connections.
Martian declined to speculate about when the new distance-learning program will be online.
"We are rolling already on deciding on how to branch out," she said.
The $3.6 million center next to Kenai Central High School opened its doors to students in April and is offering its first series of special summer activities. It is the 39th Challenger center in the nation, dedicated to inspiring a new generations of space scientists and honoring the memory of the crew of the Challenger space shuttle that exploded in 1986.
The Alaska Federation of Natives worked in partnership with the center to obtain the grant. The Monday announcement included a listing of $15 million in federal education grants to Alaska schools and organizations for a variety of programs.
Martian praised the support of the delegation for the Challenger Center.
"The entire congressional staff has really put their heart and soul behind this project."
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