When Rob Fredell was growing up in Texas, he saw science and engineering skills in action while watching a former neighbor test fly F-111 fighter jets outside of his family’s home in Fort Worth.
“The F-111 was the swing-wing, fighter bomber that they built to fly real fast and real low in Vietnam,” said Fredell, president and CEO of the Challenger Learning Center of Colorado. “So he used to fly over the house real fast and real low. And he’d light the afterburners if he’d be home for dinner.”
The neighbor, the late Neil Anderson, had sons around Fredell’s age. Fredell and his brothers would hang out with them, drive go-carts and generally horse around. On weekends, Anderson often would take the boys flying in his own plane.
“I just thought every kid grew up with test pilot neighbors and that sort of experience,” Fredell said. “And then I became an aeronautical engineer. I’m sure there’s a correlation there, but I can’t tell you how it happened.”
Decades later, after retiring from the Air Force, where he served as the first chief scientist at the Air Force Academy and achieved the rank of colonel, Fredell finds himself in a similar position as his former neighbor — one where he can help kids learn about science, technology, engineering and mathematics through interactive experiences.
The programs offered by Challenger Colorado are out of this world.
Part of the global 501(c)3 education nonprofit Challenger Center, which began as a way to commemorate those lost in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986 by encouraging scientific exploration in kids, Challenger Colorado was established in Colorado Springs by the Colorado Consortium for Earth and Space Science Education.
It opened in 2002 to offer space-based learning experiences, including simulated space missions in which participants blast off from planet Earth on a partly digital, partly theatrical role-playing mission that requires teamwork, critical thinking and heavy use of STEM skills to complete.
Many who’ve attended Colorado Springs middle schools over the past 17 years are already familiar with the center’s offerings, as sixth and eighth grade students in Academy School District 20 and eighth graders in Colorado Springs School District 11 are given the opportunity to suit up for a mission.
For many who flew a Challenger mission at the center’s old home at Challenger Middle School, Fredell said, the experience stays with them long after they hung up their mission control lab coats.
“People come up to me sometimes at King Soopers and say, ‘Oh! You work at Challenger? I flew 15 years ago and I was the aviation guy!’ And I say, ‘Really? You remember what you did 15 years ago for one half of a day?’
“So there’s something indelible about the experience. It doesn’t always mean they’re going to be an astrophysicist or an astronaut or an engineer — it’s just that active learning in engaging the brain and the hands that makes it stick.”
And although the Challenger Center has been making it “stick” for Coloradans for nearly two decades, a new location and some substantial upgrades have positioned the center to have an even larger role in molding the scientific minds of local kids and STEM enthusiasts in the future.
The purpose-built facility at District 20’s new Center for Modern Learning — with a price tag Fredell estimates at close to $3 million — features plenty of new fixtures to get excited about. There’s the new Mikkelson planetarium, new computers and equipment, a 23-foot space shuttle model suspended in the center’s atrium, and a classroom-sized maker studio and explorer lab.
There are also new aesthetic features and trap doors that help sell the illusion of a real trip through space.
All in all, the new center has an approximate replacement value between $6 million and $7 million, Fredell estimates, and can accommodate what center officials hope will be as many as 40,000 visitors per year.
This week, Fredell spoke with the Business Journal about what’s new at the center and why it’s important to cultivate STEM skills in Colorado Springs students.
What is the Challenger Learning Center all about?
What we try to do is show kids what STEM careers would look like. They don’t need another person to tell them about the orbits of planets; they need to experience the teamwork, the collaboration and the communication that goes along with being on a team of STEM professionals.
How did you get your start with the center?
When I was chief scientist at the Air Force Academy about 11 years ago, the superintendent said, ‘Hey, Fredell, you’re going to this All Pikes Peak Reads fundraiser.’ I went and there was a silent auction. So I wrote down my name on a couple of bids to get the thing going. Well, nobody else bid on [a trip to] this thing called the Challenger Mission. So $400 later, my daughter’s eighth grade class went to the old Challenger and I thought, ‘Well if I’m paying for it, I’m going to go see it.’ And I was just stunned by the experience. … I joined the board and at a certain point they needed a new executive director, so they hired me.
This location officially opened Sept. 28. What’s new?
Everything is doubled. We’ve got double the space, double the programs and we’re able to double the number of children we engage in these programs in a year. And it may be more than twice as cool. The old place was starting to show its age and it didn’t have anything that was really awe-inspiring. The new place has lots of tricks and awesome — in the true sense of that word — experiences.
Why is this an ideal way for kids to learn STEM skills?
STEM in general is a team sport. You never build a mission to the moon, or a new airplane, or even a new piece of software for that matter, with one person. There are very few efforts anymore that are like Henry Ford or Thomas Edison’s. STEM is a team sport and this is one of the unique experiences you can have in school that shows STEM as a team sport. It’s not a museum experience. It’s not ’Walk through and observe.’ It’s ‘Get down on your knees and do it. Get dirty and communicate with a partner, with a teammate, or with a bunch of teammates.’ We don’t exactly know why, but we know that this is sticky in a memory sense. We know that people remember what they do when they come here 10 to 15 years later. It’s the combination, I think, of a unique experience with the hands-on portion of it. We’ve all walked through museums, and we might be hard-pressed a year later to describe anything that we saw. But this is an experience that stays with you. There’s a ‘wow’ factor.
Why is it important to teach and promote STEM skills?
It’s tough to compete for kids’ attention now. They all want to be professional YouTube video recorders or gamers. And we do need those people, but we need engineers and scientists. This city is very space-based in its economy with Air Force Space Command here and all the support contractors around us, and they need bright young people. And it’s important to our economy. China outproduces us in engineers by 10 to one, so we need to be able to do more with the few that we have and be creative and build things.
What’s next for the center?
There’s a lot of demand for weekend programs that aren’t school-group based. So we plan to start Super Science Saturdays where we’re open to the public. We will have activities and we have planetarium shows, but we won’t fly missions. So you can take a tour and you might do a low-Earth orbital flight, kind of like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. But we don’t fly missions because we want to save that as a special thing for school groups. But we’ll have all sorts of activities. We’ll have partners from the community with telescopes set up outside to view the sun, planetarium shows, maker activities, stuff like that. So those will be on selected Saturdays and we’ll publicize that in the New Year.
What else should people know?
There’s something here for everyone. And secondly, even though we rely heavily on [School District 20] to keep this place thriving, it’s open to everybody: private, public, charter, religious, secular — we don’t draw distinctions. The programs are open to all school groups and all people.