The new Challenger Learning Center of Colorado, which engages children in hands-on space education through STEM curriculum and application, has doubled in size.

Programming has expanded, too, to offer space- and science-related programs to all Colorado Springs residents, instead of primarily middle school students and teachers.

“We don’t want to be a secret,” said Ron Bush, vice president of education.

The center, which pays homage to the passion of the 1986 Challenger Shuttle Mission, was dedicated Thursday.

Envision a 40-seat planetarium with interactive shows and a transporter that “launches” children into space using go-kart seats equipped with subwoofers that simulate the real deal.

Picture a large briefing room where students receive their instructions for a trip to Mars or other destination, and an upgraded flight simulator, space station and a high-tech mission control center that tracks the spacecraft.

The center also has a mission control console from the 1969 Apollo 11 launch to the moon.

“It’s a piece of history redesigned to be interactive for kids,” Bush said.

The new center opened over the summer at Academy School District 20's Center for Modern Learning on the campus of the year-old Legacy Peak Elementary School, 8701 Wolf Valley Drive. 

Although the center held its first event in July — a family-oriented celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moonwalk by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin — a community grand open house will be held Saturday.

The free event runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and will feature shows in the Mikkelson Planetarium, which was funded by the Mikkelson Foundation of Monument. The open house will have space simulations, chemistry magic shows, food trucks and other activities.

Challenger Learning Center is one of 43 such educational sites in the world created in honor of the crew of the Challenger Space Shuttle, flight STS-51-L.

The shuttle broke apart in flight in 1986, killing all seven crew members, including a civilian teacher.

The goal is to inspire children in science, technology, engineering and math through space-themed simulated learning, complete with the sights, sounds and actions of flying into space.

Challenger Learning Center opened in Colorado Springs in 2002 on the campus of Challenger Middle School in Academy School District 20. But the 5,000-square-foot space was cramped and only allowed for half-day programs for middle schoolers.

Staff moved into the new, 10,500-square-foot center in June. The nearly $6 million project was funded by a $230 million bond that D-20 voters approved in 2016 and by donations.

When schoolchildren come for a day, they’ll do a mission trip for half of the time and will do other work in the large Maker Space, essentially a science classroom for robotics, team-building exercises and engineering and design projects. All educational plans follow state standards, Bush said.

“The planetarium is a great teaching tool to visualize things you can’t visualize on a computer,” he said.

The center plans to hold a public event on the second Saturday of every month.

Days for home-schooled children and training for homeschooling parents in robotics, computer coding and other STEM lessons also are being offered.

“People know us for our middle school missions, but we’re not just a school facility,” Bush said.

Officials expect to double enrollment in Challenger Learning Center programs, from 20,000 last school year to more than 40,000 this year by expanding to elementary schools. They also expect to serve thousands of children and adults through public events.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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