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Challenger Learning Center's upgrades are ready for takeoff

A group of smiling people gather behind a blue ribbon and banner that says "Success to You! McLean County Chamber of Commerce." A woman in the center holds an oversized pair of scissors up to the ribbon.
Lauren Warnecke
Challenger Learning Center Director Julia Ossler, center, cuts the ribbon on a newly-renovated command center.

Challenger Learning Center has a new command center, thanks to a long-awaited renovation that took place over the summer.

Heartland Community College administrators and staff gathered for a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday at the entrance to the center, located in the college’s Astroth Community Education Center.

The center is part of Heartland’s continuing education programs. Using science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), it creates supplemental experiences for middle school students and teachers by simulating space expeditions. Schools can arrange field trips to the center that also leads summer camps for grades K-8.

Heartland president Keith Cornille, provost Rick Pearce, Continuing Education Executive Director Angie Coughlin and members of the McLean County Chamber of Commerce joined Challenger Learning Center Director Julia Ossler for the ceremony.

Cornille said 7,300 youth visited the center last year.

“Last year we had nearly a mission here every day of the year,” he said. “There’s so much demand for this space. Part of that is making sure we keep it current for people. … This is a resource for the community and it's one we’re going to continue to invest in.”

Upgrades include new computer stations at each seat and large screens at the front of the room.

A darkened conference room with blue underlighting and large screens reading Welcome Future NASA Crew Members!
Lauren Warnecke
The new command center added large screens at the front of the room and computers at each station.

“The kids can not only see mission patches they have designed when they first walk in,” said Ossler, "they can also see into the space station and see their partners in action.”

Simulations place students either in the space shuttle or mission control, switching half-way through the module so they get to experience both roles.

The command center also now has flexible, more comfortable seating and a fresh coat of paint.

“We love that the space is more modular,” Ossler said. “It was really about making a more modern, inclusive, collaborative space for our students.”

Project costs totaled about $150,000, including $50,000 from Heartland Community College Foundation that also administers scholarships for the fee-based program.

Ossler and other Challenger staff already have test-driven the new space and love the upgrade. Previously, they used a single monitor on a cart at the front of the room. Campus IT and outside tech vendors were key partners, coordinating access to multiple software programs at once.

“In each station is a separate type of STEM field where the kids are going through experiences to help complete mission objectives,” Ossler said. “We have everything from life support focusing on anatomy; we’ve got navigation focusing on geometry. They’re all doing a different piece of the puzzle.”

The new infrastructure allows for real-time conversation between teams playing these various roles as new data come in “so they can make really quick decisions and meet their mission objectives,” Ossler said.

The Challenger Learning Center renovation is one of several recent construction projects at the college. A new cafe and lounge space opens Thursday in the Workforce Development Center. And the new State Farm Electric Vehicle Lab is scheduled to be ready for classes in January.

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Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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