Philadelphia is no stranger to innovation, cutting-edge scientific research, technological advancements, and world renowned scientists. From Benjamin Franklin, to Nobel Prize winning virologist Howard Martin Temin, to the first African American in space Guy Bluford, Philadelphia has a long history of producing some of the best and the brightest in the STEM fields. In fact, in recent years, tech and healthcare startups have exploded in the Philadelphia area. However, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center Report, less than 13% of all Philadelphia public school students obtain their undergraduate degree in STEM fields. The percentage is far less for those underrepresented in the STEM fields, including women and people of color. Furthermore, K-12 students are less likely to get the exposure and mentorship opportunities crucial to these fields. So, as Philadelphia becomes more and more STEM focused, there an obvious pipeline problem for local K-12 students in getting credentials, mentorship opportunities, and inspiration they need to fill these jobs.
While this pipeline and education problem is certainly complex, involving many factors from poverty to lack of resources in the local school system, one of the major aspects of the problem is a lack of immersive, authentic educational opportunities available to students. The Challenger Learning Center of Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization working to open a STEM learning center in Philadelphia, is hoping to offer these authentic opportunities to students in the Philadelphia area. Challenger Learning Centers are independently operating nonprofits formed in 1986 following the disastrous Challenger mission STS-51L. The surviving families of the crew formed Challenger Learning Centers to continue its educational mission. The educational center the families developed was nothing short of revolutionary. Students that attend a center experience a completely immersive simulated space mission experience.
Students in “mission control” work with students in a spacecraft or the “ISS” to complete research and solve problems in real time. There are several missions to choose from, including Mars mission, a comet mission, and a mission that studies Earth and its atmosphere. Depending on the mission, students may have to research atmospheric conditions, perform tests on biological pathogens, or build a satellite for deployment. Throughout the entire experience, students must problem-solve, use iterative engineering processes, and communicate their findings/solutions to others in their mission. This offers a unique, one-of-a kind experience providing the students the opportunity to be fully engaged in an authentic learning experience that cross many scientific disciplines.
The Challenger Learning Center of Philadelphia’s board of directors is not only working towards opening a center in Philadelphia, but is also working to develop additional immersive educational, outreach and mentorship programs. Their mission is to become a STEM curriculum support system for teachers and students, who are often doing their work in severely under resourced schools. These programs will include engineering programs with a specific focus on engineering processes, robotics programs, coding programs, and biotech programs, as well as offer in-classroom curriculum support. Through their efforts, this board of directors is hoping to provide important supports in STEM education and inspire a generation of students to pursue STEM fields in their future. After all, we need their talent.