As the world continues to celebrate the success of NASA’s InSight lander exploring the inner core of Mars, Texas State Technical College is planning a special event Saturday to capitalize on renewed interest in the planet.

The Challenger Learning Center at TSTC in Waco is hosting a free Journey to Mars STEM event, where local students can get a more in-depth look at Insight and create their own Mars habitat.

Area youth can build a straw rocket, learn about the effects of lower gravity, view the planetarium, create a Mars habitat using 3D printing pens, take pictures in the space-themed photo booth, and enjoy star-shaped cookies, among other events from 9 a.m. to noon at the TSTC Murray Watson Jr. Student Recreation Center, 3801 Campus Drive.

The event celebrates all the technological advances NASA has made over the past 60 years as well as the future by focusing on Mars and getting students interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers.

The festivities were moved to the recreation center rather than the nearby Challenger Learning Center because organizers are expecting a larger crowd than the Center can hold, according to event coordinator Jeremy Hagman.

While the event is free, visitors are encouraged to register at bit.ly/JourneyToMarsWaco to allow organizers to appropriately prepare for crowds, he said.

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TSTC Challenger Learning Center

Animated scenes are part of the simulated shuttle launch experience for visitors, which includes vibrating seats and sounds of the space mission.

The Challenger Learning Center will feature all new exhibits and activities, Hagman said.

The Challenger Learning Center on TSTC’s Waco campus opened in 2016. The space mission simulator gives students a hands-on experience through a program run by the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. The nonprofit was formed through families of astronauts killed in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger who promote continuing the educational mission of the crew. The Challenger crew included high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher in space. She planned to teach two 15-minute lessons from space, according to the organization.

Schools or organizations sign up to visit the location where groups get to participate in activities that focus on team building, cooperation, critical and creative thinking, Hagman said.

“You obviously can’t have a robotic arm in every class,” Hagman said.

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TSTC Challenger Learning Center

Program assistant Briana Poff talks about the control room where students can talk with other students inside the mock up of the space station at the Texas State Technical College in Waco Challenger Learning Center.

Visitors are split into two groups, one of which is sent to simulated mission control while the other visits the simulated shuttle, where they experience the shuttle’s liftoff and connection to the International Space Station. The groups switch halfway through, and learn how to work in tandem to navigate star fields and examine space rocks as each person has a job they have to perform to help complete the mission, Hagman said. For every astronaut in space, there are hundreds of people on the ground working to make that possible and that’s part of the lesson they try to teach, he said.

“We want them to think, even if I’m not one of those guys on the space station one day, I could still be part of this process and have a great career in science, technology, engineering, and math,” he said.

The Challenger Learning Center has hosted students and teachers from the Dallas/Fort Worth area, West Texas, and all over Region 12. TSTC Provost Adam Hutchison expects the number of missions to grow.

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TSTC Challenger Learning Center

Texas State Technical College in Waco Challenger Learning Center coordinator Jeremy Hagman speaks in the briefing room with patches of various NASA missions on the wall. 

The location had some limitations at the beginning of its operations as staff was added and outreach strategies were refined, he said. However, they are now confident the learning center will continue to grow in its impact on Central Texas, he said.

“The goal of the Center is to inspire visitors and help students connect space exploration, and science in general, with their everyday world. If their visit to the Challenger Learning Center at TSTC Waco creates interest in STEM careers, at our college, (McLennan Community College), or any other institution, and motivates them to pursue those dreams, then we’ve had the impact we’re looking for.”

For more information, call 254-867-2019 or find Challenger Learning Center at TSTC in Waco on Facebook.

Cassie L. Smith has covered county government for the Tribune-Herald since June 2014. She previously worked as a reporter for the Beaumont Enterprise and The Eagle in Bryan-College Station. Smith graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington.

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