New CEO: Challenger's change at top shows its progress

Posted: Thursday, July 22, 2010

When any chairman says the following about a major business decision, the organization must feel like it's headed in the right direction:

"This is the first non-crisis transition we've ever had," Jamie Kenworthy, chairman of the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska's board of directors, said this week.

Kenworthy was talking about the board's unanimous decision to promote its former chief operating officer, Marnie Olcott, into the chief executive officer role. The move happened earlier this month and took effect immediately.

Larry Porter, Challenger's former CEO who worked pro bono for more than four years, will continue volunteering at the educational center in a special projects, fund raising and advisory capacity.

Porter said when he hired Olcott as the COO in 2007 it was his intent to groom Olcott for the CEO job.

Olcott started as a part-time educator at Challenger in 2005.

Porter said Olcott has several attributes that make her right for the top spot at the facility.

"Her enthusiasm, dedication, her willingness to do what needs to be done to make things work," Porter said, listing some of Olcott's skills.

The learning center was built in Kenai in 2000. It was created to provide hands-on educational experiences to all Alaskans in science, technology, engineering and math using simulated space and earth sciences missions as well as other activities.

Challenger is a private 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation raising nearly half of its operating funds through the programs it offers and facility rentals. The center also relies on grants and donations from local organizations.

The Kenai center is the 39th of 52 centers in the Challenger Learning Center for Space Science Education international network created in 1986 by the families of astronauts who died in the Challenger 51-L mission.

Porter said the Kenai center was on the verge of shutting down when he took the reins.

"When I took over in 2006, funding was non-existent," Porter said. "I had less than two weeks of cash to operate with and somehow we've made those two weeks last 4.5 years."

Porter said his strategy was to start running the learning center like it was a business. That meant focusing on generating funds rather than relying solely on grants. The center started to make more money as it improved the quality of the educational product by keeping a dedicated, energetic and consistent staff, according to Porter.

The successful model was on display Wednesday morning as about 100 kids from three groups worked on a variety of STEM programming.

Kate DuClos, 10, and her three teammates huddled around a cardboard rocket ship. Their mission was to hold an egg in place using rubber bands, a plastic bag and other materials so that the egg wouldn't break when the rocket rode a string from the roof into a padded barrier.

DuClos, from Anchorage, said she enjoys the all-girls summer camp at the Challenger center.

"Teachers don't talk the whole time. We actually are involved," DuClos said. "We get the knowledge that we just learned and then we put it into our work."

Janet Yaeger, one of the learning center's educational staff members, said the egg activity had a lot of lessons hidden in it. It taught teamwork, creativity, thinking outside of the box, engineering and even a little physics.

"We just let them go. We want them to push the boundaries," Yaeger said. "We don't want to tell them what to do."

After the girls put their rocket ships to the test, the staff would discuss what made some designs work and what left other designs a yolky mess.

"Anytime we've got 100 kids running through here in a day, we certainly couldn't ask for anything more," Olcott said after observing some of the activities.

Another room of students focused on a simple machine class while a different room learned about robotics.

"The amount of room rentals that we have, the educational programs that we do and school programs, we would not be able to do all these things if we had not grown," Porter said.

Since 2005, Challenger has increased profitability by nearly 55 percent and its expenses climbed from around $600,000 in 2005 to about $750,000 in 2009, according to budget records.

Clearly, Olcott is taking over amidst a warm climate.

"The center is doing well and Marnie (Olcott) has been a wonderful high-energy COO," Kenworthy said. "Larry brought stability to the place. This is a planned transition that the board unanimously agreed to because we think she's got the energy and vision to be our CEO."

Part of Olcott's vision includes focusing on curriculum and professional development, home school programs, distance video conference education and linking informal and formal science, technology, math and engineering education. But her biggest goal is continuing to involve more and more students and teachers with the center.

"It's pulling Alaska together and having all of our resources together for the benefit of Alaska," Olcott said. "I want to increase our ability to reach kids in remote areas of Alaska."

Really, Olcott wants to reach all students.

"When we see kids come in dragging their feet looking like this," Olcott said, slumping her shoulders like a grumpy child, "and then get really into it, it's inspiring."

Andrew Waite can be reached at

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