Education & Workforce Development and Environment and Technology

Center offers businesses a challenging experience: Year-old school program adds corporate component to build community awareness and financial support

April 18, 2005

Simulating the events of a real-life space mission is not just child's play anymore.

Decatur Township Schools' Indianapolis Challenger Learning Center now allows area businesses to participate, too.

The center, in Ameriplex Business Park, has been hosting field trips and summer camps for children for about a year. An adult program lifted off last fall.

"We do not just want to do school-oriented projects," said Director Gary Pellico. "We want to be a part of this community and we are in this great business community."

The Challenger Center for Space Science Education is a global not-for-profit agency created in 1986 as a memorial to the astronauts killed in the Challenger space shuttle. The crews' families members wanted to continue the educational message of that mission.

The Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township opened the Indianapolis center April 1, 2004, with a mission to bolster interest in science and math.

"Our school board really has a vision that technology is our future," Pellico said. "Not just for kids, but for everyone."

Indianapolis' program-dubbed Corporate STAR, for Simulated Training for Adventure and Results-is one of just seven nationwide. Most of the 55 Challenger centers, including the ones in Brownsburg and Hammond, focus on school groups.

The corporate component is designed to help small to medium-size businesses with team building and leadership training. Toledo, Ohio-based HR on Demand coordinates the local program.

"There is a lot of correlation between working at NASA in a space station and working in a corporate setting," said Flight Director Patrick Donovan. "By doing the mission, corporations get an opportunity to utilize critical thinking and problem solving under a stressful environment."

Work on the Indianapolis program began about two years ago, when Donovan met HR on Demand representatives at a conference in Kansas City, Mo. The personnel consultants were interested in an alternative to outdoor corporate exercises, and the center was interested in a way to increase support.

"We'll bring the Indianapolis Challenger Center an additional source of revenue that will help them with their primary mission of student-run missions," said HR on Demand President Jim Traver. "The corporate missions provide the company with a better understanding of what resources the Challenger center provides."

And the money doesn't hurt. Corporate rates start at $6,500 for the three-hour session; schools contribute $600 per visit. Funding flows through the school district. The center had a $300,000 budget its first year.

Corporate missions are customized to address each company's goals. Participants are split into teams and given tasks ranging from inspecting the astronauts' health to controlling an unmanned satellite.

Half the teams are assigned to the simulated space station and half to a mission control room modeled after the NASA facilities in Houston.

"What is really interesting to watch is that the groups do not initially realize that they will be communicating from different places," Pellico said. "In order to be successful, there has to be a lot of interaction."

Halfway through the mission, the two groups are stopped and debriefed before switching places.

The adults' experience is intense. Participants face more mock emergencies-such as a meteor shower or oxygen shortage-than students do.

"It really causes them to look at the effects of teamwork, flexibility, patience, the importance of being aware of what is going on in other departments and the need to prioritize," Traver said. "They will leave the program with action plans."

Pepsico and Meijer are among the businesses that have sent teams on corporate missions already.

"It was better than I ever could have imagined and a learning experience that I as an adult will never forget," said Taffy Challis, an administrative assistant at the Meijer store at Heartland Crossing. "It helped us to work together as a team because we all had a common goal, and the only way we could meet this goal was to work together."

Corporate STAR groups fill in gaps between visits from schoolchildren. The center typically hosts one school group each day-and as many as three on busy days-but still has excess capacity.

The 10-year-old Brownsburg center, on the other hand, routinely fills a year's schedule in one week and maintains a waiting list.

"We get a lot of schools from that list," Pellico said.

He expects demand for the corporate program to grow.

"I think we are the right place for corporate missions," he said. "Because we are in Indianapolis, there are a lot of corporations who could use team building and leadership development."
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