Ind. science-based education center to close

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News,Science and Technology

BROWNSBURG, Ind. (AP) — For about two hours once a year, Wade Overfelt gets to feel like he's in outer space. Sometimes, the 12-year-old's virtual trips take him to Mars, the moon or a satellite orbiting Earth.

On Tuesday, he got to use a robotic arm to examine Earth rocks. But it was likely his last chance to experience those kinds of missions in his hometown.

The night before, the Brownsburg School Board voted to shutter the Challenger Learning Center. The exhibit, which teaches school-age children about geology and astronomy, will close at the end of the school year.

"It's an unfortunate situation all the way around because it's a program that we're very proud of," Brownsburg Schools spokeswoman Donna Petraits told The Indianapolis Star (http://www.indystar.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2012121211010 ).

It's a long-standing one, too. The Challenger Learning Center opened its doors in 1994 as the first of its kind in Indiana and the 22nd nationally. Now, there are 48 centers around the globe, including one 18 miles down the road in Decatur Township on the southwest side of Indianapolis.

"I'm still in shock, just like they are," said Cyndy Meier, lead flight director at the Decatur Township center. "They have a fine, fine program."

The Decatur Township center opened in spring 2004 because there were too many groups trying to use the Brownsburg center — up to 275 activities a year.

But it's unusual to have two centers so close together, particularly in a metro area the size of Indianapolis. In fact, the two Challenger centers here are the closest together outside New York City, where four centers are within a 12-mile radius.

Officials say locations are based partially on demand, and the success rate of Brownsburg a decade ago helped fuel plans for a second center.

"At the time, the economy was much better," Meier said. "Brownsburg had a waiting list of schools to do missions, and so the plan was, we would take the runoff from the schools that were on the waiting list. It was never meant to be a competition."

Meier said she doesn't know whether or how her center would play a role in the wake of the Brownsburg decision. The Brownsburg center will stay open until May.

But Petraits said her district can't help but wonder what would have happened if there were only one center and not two.

"We're all kind of wondering, and obviously we're asking ourselves the question: 'Would we be in this position now if this was the Challenger Center for Central Indiana?'"

The Hendricks County district spent about $1.2 million to build the math, science and problem-solving center in Brownsburg. The center features space simulations and a mission control room.

The Challenger Center project is named for the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster that killed seven NASA crew members, including New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe. In October 1994, her mother, Grace George Corrigan, came to the Brownsburg location's grand opening.

Officials estimated at the time that up to 15,000 students from Central Indiana would visit the center each year.

But class trips alone couldn't hold it together. Petraits said that over the past decade, the center has run up a $2.4 million budget deficit, - not including the cost of licensing fees and utilities for the building. Although there were many attempts to keep it open, including the funneling of $21,000 in student fees into the building this year, in the end "it comes down to the dollars," Petraits said.

"Staff has been wonderful. They've cut back on their hours; they've made sacrifices. And it's just not been enough with the shrinking budget," she said, noting that the district has managed $6 million in budget cuts over the past five years. "We just can't keep those kinds of dollars flowing into this facility."

Where the school needs to put that money, Brownsburg Superintendent Jim Snapp said, is back into the schools themselves.

"It's essential that funds be directed into the classroom for Brownsburg students," Snapp said in a news release. "The school corporation could no longer afford to subsidize the education of students from other districts by filling the gap in revenue for the Challenger Learning Center."

Petraits said the school's obligation is to the taxpayers, including parents who demand more teachers and small class sizes.

"That has to be our priority, and so difficult decisions have to be made," she said. "There is no question that Brownsburg is about at its tipping point."

If Brownsburg can't afford to subsidize the center, the school district could relinquish control and let the center be salvaged by an outside organization, said Lance Bush, president and CEO of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education based in Alexandria, Va. Bush's organization works with communities to install the Challenger centers.

Petraits said the Brownsburg center has organized a task force that will try to find a sponsor for the building by the end of the school year.

If the effort is unsuccessful, Bush said, the exhibits could be packed up and moved to other locations.

Other centers have closed, new ones have reopened to keep the network growing.

"Honestly, I am concerned," Bush said. "But we've garnered three new commitments, three new centers (this year). We're going to go forward in an aggressive fashion to help service kids all over."

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com

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