A NWIndiana Life in the Spotlight: Becky Manis

BManisWhen Becky Manis was in the fourth grade, her school had a special visitor. Little did she know then that the direction of her life would change from that day forward. The special visitor that day to Solon Robinson Elementary in Crown Point was astronaut Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Ross.

“I couldn’t believe Crown Point had as astronaut! From that day forward, I was interested in learning about space,” recalls Manis.

Now, as director of the Challenger Learning Center on the campus of Purdue Calumet in Hammond, IN, Manis devotes her life to inspiring children in the same way she was inspired. The Challenger Learning Center is its own non-profit organization and is not affiliated with nor does it receive funds from Purdue Calumet.

There are forty-five Challenger Learning Centers across the world. The centers exist as a tribute to the seven crew members who lost their lives in the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle on January 28th, 1986. That shuttle’s mission was to be educational and would have carried the first civilian teacher into space. The families of the crew members wanted to ensure the educational purpose of that mission would carry on. They envisioned educational centers where children, teachers and everyday people could touch the future.

The Challenger Learning Center in Hammond was the vision of local teacher Lisa Austgen. Austgen had visited a similar center in Brownsburg, Indiana.

“It was a big undertaking to plan that field trip. Lisa thought that, since we had our own astronaut from Crown Point, Northwest Indiana should have a Challenger Center of its own,” explains Manis. “She worked for six years promoting the Center, gathering supporters and raising the funds to make our Center a reality. It’s because of her dedication and vision that our Center opened its doors in 1999.

Since then, the Center which houses two space simulators and a planetarium, has become a popular destination for school children in Northwest Indiana. The Center’s mission is to inspire and engage students and the community in science, technology, engineering and math fields. To that end, the Center runs programs that simulate what an astronaut, scientist or engineer does in their fields. By giving students these hands-on, real world experiences, the hope is that these experiences will encourage students to consider pursuing careers in those fields.

The Challenger Learning Center offers a variety of programs. “During the school year, we run space simulation field trips and programs for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. We also offer summer camps, programs for Boys & Girls Clubs Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and for special needs groups. Our Center is also open for family programs the second Saturday of every month,” explains Manis. “One exciting opportunity we started offering last year is for older students to experience underwater astronaut training. Students learn to use SCUBA gear and simulate some of the training curriculum used for actual astronauts.”

This past year alone, the Challenger Learning Center has given twenty thousand students the opportunity to “touch the future”. Since the Challenger Learning Center opened in 1999, a total of 250,000 students have taken part in Challenger Learning Center programs. Most elementary schools in Northwest Indiana send at least one of their grades to the Center for an educational field trip.

Coming in September, the Challenger Learning center will be hosting its 3rd Annual Space Race 5K Run & 2K Walk.

“For the past couple years, it has been a morning race. This year, we decided to change things up and hold it in the evening so we could make it a ‘glow’ run”, says Manis. “We are also very pleased that astronaut Jerry Ross will be attending the event to meet with the kids and their parents. This is especially meaningful to me as he is the one who first sparked my interest.”

“Our Center matters because our kids and our future matter,” explains Manis. “Kids need to be exposed to a variety of learning opportunities that will help them plan for their future and ours. Today’s students are the future explorers, leaders and workforce of tomorrow. How successful they are lends itself to how healthy the future will be for all of us.”

If you would like to find out more about the programs offered by the Challenger Learning Center or if you would like to get involved as a donor or volunteer, you may visit their website at clcnwi.com or call them at (219) 989-3250.