Excellence in Education | Students turn rocket scientists for a day | SierraSun.com

Excellence in Education | Students turn rocket scientists for a day

Glenshire Elementary School student Jonah Caldwell performs as Communications Officer for the Challenger field trip.
Courtesy Shelly Purdy |

Imagine you’re about 10- or 11-year-old.

You’re in fifth grade and you get a chance to be a NASA space engineer, working aboard the Challenger Space Shuttle.

Every spring, fifth graders from the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District transform into rocket scientists or astronauts for a day by participating in simulated space missions at Sacramento’s Discovery Museum.

The field trips are funded by a generous donation from the Truckee Tahoe Airport in partnership with the Excellence in Education Foundation.

The Challenger Learning Center was designed in cooperation with NASA and has a Mission Control Center modeled after the “real” mission control at the Johnson Space Center as well as a spacecraft designed to operate like a futuristic space vehicle. This program was created by the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, an international, nonprofit organization founded in 1986 by the families of the seven astronauts who were lost during the last flight of the Challenger Space Shuttle.

The students apply what they’ve learned in math, science, technology and language throughout the school year to travel to the moon, meet up with Halley’s Comet or go on a mission to Mars. The kids also learn how teamwork and collaboration are used to accomplish lofty goals.


When the students arrive at the museum, they are broken into two groups: the Mission Control group and the Spacecraft Group. Within those groups, the children are assigned tasks such as mission navigation, communication, probe building, life support and data collection. The students very quickly figure out the only way their mission will succeed is if each of them completes his or her assigned task for the benefit of the overall group.

The curriculum at the Challenger Learning Center is designed to not only have the kids use their academic skills, but also learn a little bit about themselves and what they can accomplish if they try.

“My favorite part of about the Challenger field trip was when we were in the spaceship trying to find the satellite. It is fun because you get to work together and learn how astronauts work,” said Jonah Caldwell, a fifth grader from Glenshire Elementary.

And it’s not just the students who get a lot out of the experience.

“Watching the kids work as a team was a revelation. They studied their roles hard leading up to the outing, but watching them apply their study and make new discoveries was an inspiration,” said Jonah’s dad, Christian Caldwell, who attended the field trip as a parent chaperone. “I got to see them all focus their attention, work together and share a victory in a demanding and sometimes confusing environment. The high expectations placed upon them by the staff only led them to work harder to communicate, understand and solve problems as a team. Being an observer at my fifth grader’s Challenger field trip was a gift and I can’t wait to do it with my youngest.”

“Programs and partnerships like this are what Excellence in Education is all about,” said Ex in Ed Executive Director Laura Abbey Brown. “We are always thrilled when we can support hands-on learning experiences for students that are relevant in real-world situations. And, we are so grateful to the Airport for their continued support of the Challenger program.”


The mission of the Tahoe Truckee Excellence in Education Foundation is to enhance public education within the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District to strengthen the learning experience for students.

During the past 25 years, the Foundation has provided more than $2.7 million in grants to teachers and programs within TTUSD. For more information about Excellence in Education or to make a donation, visit http://www.exined.org.

Shelly Purdy is an Excellence in Education board member.

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