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Exploring the wonders of science

ATWATER — Born out of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster, a program based at the Castle Commerce Center now has a broader mission — engage students in a love for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The Challenger Learning Center of the San Joaquin Valley and the adjoining Castle Science and Technology Center work with about 20,000 students from preschool to college level in the sprawling two-story complex not far from the front gate of this former Air Force base.

Like many of his students, Tom Tanioka, Challenger educational director, was a late bloomer as far as science was concerned. A retired sixth-grade math and science teacher at Merced's Tenaya Middle School, Tanioka was turned off to science in high school and was a history major at San Francisco State University.

"I practically flunked out of chemistry," Tanioka said. "I started out in social studies, but the more I taught math and science, the more I realized I enjoyed this area."

Tanioka, 65, said that while the program's simulated outer space missions are still part of what it does, the focus is not space missions, but zeroes in on STEM — the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math. A large part of what the program does is make sure youngsters have fun with science, sparking a lifelong curiosity that could lead to a scientific career.

"This is a place where kids can have fun and have a spark ignited at the same time," Tanioka said. "In the classroom, a lot of the focus is on tests and memorization. The best way to learn (science) is to mess around with it."

Dave Olsen, chairman of the Challenger Learning Center Foundation, said the key is inspiring an interest in students at an early age. If youngsters make a decision to pursue science in an early grade, it ultimately will have an impact on what career fields are open to them.

Reflecting on financial struggles with its landlord, Merced County, Olsen said, "It would be a shame if this (Challenger) has to go away just because of political maneuvers. The past year was the best year in our 15-year history. This gets kids interested in career fields with real potential. There is a real need across the country to get kids exposed to STEM subjects."

Four weeks of weeklong summer camps have been offered and several students have come from Florida, Russia, Germany, Hawaii and San Diego. Children attending the summer program have given enthusiastic feedback.

Emma Bartels, 10, of Modesto was impressed that her instructors allowed students to do things they wouldn't be allowed to do at home.

Emma, who likes biology and astronomy, said students got to take apart a videocassette recorder, and added that she learns more through a hands-on approach.

Catherine Charles, 9, of Modesto will be a fifth-grader this fall. She likes chemistry, but she wants to be an accountant.

"I really like we get to figure things out and see how close we get to the right answer," Catherine said.

Drew Henenfent, 8, of Merced likes making chemical reactions. At home, he has a microscope and chemistry set and wants to be a scientist when he grows up.

New way to see world

Susan Morrison of Fresno, the program's museum educator and a retired teacher from Madera and Huron, said the reason she wants to devote her retirement to the program is to promote science education in Central California. Through a NASA grant, she's heavily involved in a teacher training outreach component.

"The kids who like science are the ones who come to science camp," Morrison said. "We have fun discussions looking at the world in a different way than they have seen it before."

Connie Hunter of Atwater runs the Science Explorer Lab for first- through third-graders. Students get to make chemical reactions and watch what happens — without using strong, harsh chemicals.

"These children are eager," Hunter said. "Teachers don't have time to teach science at lower levels. The earlier you get them interested, the more successful you are."

Amanda Hartman, the center's executive director, said within the next six months the Challenger center will implement a program to involve preschoolers in its science programs.

Hartman said the program's overall mission is to give San Joaquin Valley children basic knowledge and interest in scientific things.

She said 70 percent of science and technology jobs in California go unfilled because of a lack of qualified applicants, with jobs outsourced to other countries.

There's a growing belief, Tanioka said, that most of what people learn about science comes from outside the classroom.

"The museum is a location where a lot of scientific learning can be sparked or stimulated," Tanioka said.

Tanioka said Pacific Gas & Electric Co. donated a service van two years ago that is used to take the center's science programs to schools in Visalia, Concord, North Fork, Sanger, Coalinga and Huron, especially because some school districts no longer can afford field trips.

There's an inflatable planetarium where stars and constellations are displayed. Students get to watch a solar eclipse from the surface of the moon, looking back at Earth.

Students get to build a miniature car during science camp. Using a 9-volt battery, rubber bands, an electric motor and two-liter soda bottles or pill bottles, the cars are assembled with hot glue.

"Most kids have never made anything in their life," Tanioka said. "It gets kids so excited and it's rewarding to me to see them accomplish something."

Along the way, the steps of scientific methodology are covered: asking questions, doing research, designing experiments from hypothesis, and observing and recording results to form a conclusion.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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