Space Education

“Life Support Team! We only have 3 minutes of oxygen remaining on the Space Station!”, shouts Commander Libby. Wearing a blue flight suit with middle schoolers clinging to her arm, Libby Norcross is a space enthusiast and teacher at the Challenger Center. She takes groups through the space simulators at the center, while (why not) coming up with some emergencies like the one above.

Libby Norcross, educator at the Challenger Center. Photo credit.
Libby Norcross, educator at the Challenger Center. Photo credit.

 Learning from immersive scenarios

The Challenger Center is a learning institution geared towards STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and offers immersive experiences to children. According to the center, they are an “…educational space simulator and STEM resource center that positively impacts students, businesses, and our community by fostering real-world skills—teamwork, communication, problem solving—in a totally immersive learning environment.”

An immersive scenario is the next step towards interactive, hands-on museum exhibits. In my earlier posts for this blog I explored how some museums or science centers can grab a child’s attention by using brilliant ad campaigns (such as the whale heart car or other immersive giant hearts), many of which can be interactive. Immersive experiences have a much higher holding power (in other words, they are “attention-grabbing”).

An immersive exhibit where the visitor can crawl inside a giant heart. At Franklin Institute. Photo by the Author.

Like the NASA education pyramid below, where “inspire” and “engage” precede “educate”, the Challenger Center’s goal is “to inspire and engage students, then support that experience with solid education.” Norcross, the Challenger Center commander, tells me via email: “Encouraging students in science and engineering begins with engaging them through hands-on activities and completely immersive environments.  Then they’re hooked and they want to learn more – and we’re able to bridge the gap by providing content support, explanations, and additional resources that link with what they’ve seen, done, heard, and felt.  Experiencing science is one of the most powerful ways to teach.”

Education pyramid. Image credit:

Besides the holding power that the interactive or immersive exhibit has, its greatest benefit is the affective connection and memory it creates. I continue to reiterate: facts alone are not enough for someone to leave that museum, planetarium, or science center having learned new things. Instead, what does is the emotional response – the feeling of awe or excitement – that will create a memory. (Stay tuned for our guest post by Roberta Manna on planetarium initiatives for underserved communities in Brazil.)

I asked Norcross what she actually observes in the Challenger Center. How do the immersive scenarios affect children? She tells me she sees “kids grow in confidence as they realize they can achieve in new situations.  I see students become excited about math and science topics.” In fact, they are so touched that they send her letters in gratitude.

Apollo launching pad. Photo by the author.
Apollo launching pad. Photo by the author.

It is not just children who can have memorable experiences. What happens when adults are immersed?

Like the Challenger Center, NASA also has outreach projects for the community. I recently started participating in one such event (specifically, the NASAsocial) where members of the community are given a press pass to tour NASA facilities and insider access to buildings and events. In one such event is where I first met Libby, among a group of NASA guests (an audience that included educators, students, and engineers – some who actually were part of the Apollo project or worked in other NASA programs).

I already described the experience in my blog (and posted more photos here), but like the children in the Challenger Center, I was able to spend days completely immersed in space technology – except this technology was the real deal. The invitation included tours to vehicle assembly areas, visits to launch pads, and treks through exhibit construction sites. It culminated on watching NASA and partner SpaceX launch the rocket that successfully docked to the International Space Station. It was rocket science in its purest form.

Crowd gasps with the technology in NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building. Photo by the author.
Crowd gasps with the technology in NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building. Photo by the author.

Libby Norcross agrees with my enthusiasm herself. Being on both sides (as the Challenger Center immerser, and the NASA attendee and “immersee”), she believes “NASA is truly a leader in …making their work and missions accessible to the public.  By allowing enthusiasts to go behind the scenes… [reiterates] the point we make at Challenger Center that experience is one of the most powerful motivators to continued education and success!”

But sequestration may affect NASA’s educational and outreach programs. Libby wonders if this will cause NASA to seek more commercial partners (analogous to its partnership with launch companies like SpaceX): “NASA’s belt-tightening on education and outreach will mean an increase in partnerships with other informal education institutions such as Challenger Center.” We can help spread the word about a petition to repeal sequester cuts that affect NASA and an organization that facilitates contacting congressmen and requesting funds for NASA.

How to increase outreach and access to STEM 

How about displaying Ice Age animal models (like a moa or woolly mammoth) in a shopping mall? Many children grow up without the incentive to explore STEM. Reasons for that can be cultural (families encourage other interests) or social (families can not afford access to museums or planetariums). Offering alternatives to the formality of museums and observatories is a step in the right direction. (Next week’s post by guest poster Erin Salter will discuss restricted access to STEM and culture of privilege).

Another way to connect with that segment is with science ambassadors, or like my teammate Atif put it, science celebrities. Celebrities may even be one solution to the science deficit model: when knowing all the facts does not guarantee believing in science (e.g. in cases like evolution, climate change, or vaccines), a popular figure that identifies with that segment may help the audience trust the science.

Astronaut Don Pettit talks to us about space coffee at a NASAsocial. Photo by the author.
Astronaut Don Pettit talks to us about space coffee at a NASAsocial. Photo by the author.

An astronaut is the quintessential celebrity. Astronauts have instant credibility and appeal (a humorous commercial is taking advantage of that universal fact). The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis capitalized on the star effect and hired astronaut David Wolf as its scientist-in-residence. Astronaut Wolf looks back at his own experience and how he plans to encourage young visitors: “This will be an incredible opportunity to help them think in different ways that are applicable to all problem-solving. When I look back, many of the skills I needed to be good as an astronaut were learned as a young person. I can’t wait to help these young people realize what they do now will affect them for the rest of their lives.”

Talking to astronauts on the space station via video link. Commander Hadfield waves to the crowd while floating in microgravity. Photo by the author.
Talking to astronauts on the space station via video link. Commander Hadfield waves to the crowd while floating in microgravity. Photo by the author.

I’m not a young visitor, but it was pretty exciting to met astronaut Don Pettit and Commander Hadfield (live from the space station) at those NASAsocials Libby Norcross and I attended. Space, astronauts, and immersive experiences can all come together to children and adults excited about science and learning.

Commander Hadfield in a story by Zen Pencils.
Commander Hadfield in a gorgeous, inspirational story by Zen Pencils.

Commander Libby still gets letters from children who participated on her Challenger missions. It truly seems like they had an unforgettable experience. And that’s because of the nature of her job:  “What it really means is that I get to guide students in a totally immersive environment and inspire, empower, and educate them.”

Readers: do you have immersive experiences you’d like to share? Use the comments below or twitter (@russo_cristina)

Author: Mike Klymkowsky

A professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder ( I have long standing research interests in phage biology, molecular structure, cytoskeletal and regulatory (signaling) systems, and the improvement of science (biology and chemistry) courses, curricula, and outcomes (see

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