At TSTC’s Challenger Learning Centers, visitors become guardians of the galaxy

(HARLINGEN, Texas) – “Space missions” at Texas State Technical College’s Challenger Learning Centers in Harlingen and Waco are as close to becoming an astronaut as you can get without flying into the galaxy.

The centers provide engaging experiences for students of all ages that allow them to take their curiosity for space exploration to the next level.

Upon arrival, visitors divide into groups to work in a Mission Control simulation and even get hands-on experience in a working laboratory. These missions aim to provide team building, creativity and critical-thinking skills.

“Construction for TSTC’s Challenger Learning Center in Harlingen began in the summer of 2013,” said Ashley Contreras, coordinator of TSTC’s Center for Science and Math Education. “Our grand opening was in December of that year, and we began launching missions in January 2014.”

The addition of the Challenger Learning Center at TSTC’s Waco campus makes TSTC the only institution in the world to host two centers. To date, the centers in Harlingen and Waco have provided learning opportunities to over 31,000 students.

While hands-on experiences are part of the unique learning process, academics are also a big focus.

“The Challenger Learning Centers are aligned with the math and science Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards,” Contreras said. “This is evident through our grade-appropriate simulated space missions, STEM activities, and planetarium lessons.”

Alternative learning, such as the Mission Control simulation, provides students with science, technology, engineering and math skills that they might not experience otherwise.

“Places like the Challenger Learning Centers are important because we provide a one-of-a-kind learning environment to assist students of varying learning modalities in understanding certain key subjects through hands-on, project-based learning,” Contreras reiterated. “In Harlingen, we have had schools from Laredo down to Brownsville and up to Falfurrias join us in experiencing our simulated missions.”

While the centers are aimed at younger visitors, you do not need to be under a certain age to participate in the fun.

“Occasionally, we will have visitors who happen to see the large astronaut and space shuttle posters outside of the building and have their curiosity piqued,” she said. “Our team is always happy to deliver a tour and let them experience what it would be like to blast off in our replica of the Challenger shuttle to the International Space Station.”

Contreras added that the imagination of students who visit makes their work worthwhile.

“Every day is a new experience, and it is so easy to get caught up in the students’ enthusiasm,” she said. “They make us feel like we are real astronauts.”

Currently both centers remain closed due to the ongoing pandemic, but that has not stopped the stellar staff from preparing for the future.

“We will continue to abide by the policies and procedures set by TSTC’s leadership and reopen when we are able to do so,” Contreras said. “In the meantime, we are preparing for the new mission packages we will unveil to schools for the upcoming academic year. We are very excited.”

The two Challenger Learning Centers at TSTC are affiliated with the not-for-profit Challenger Center for Space Science Education in Washington, D.C. Founded in April 1986, Challenger Learning Centers across the nation were started to honor the astronauts lost during the Challenger space shuttle mission that same year.

To learn more about the Challenger Learning Centers at TSTC, visit tstc.edu/challenger.