Blogs  |  12.19.2023

Inspiring Generations of Students to Pursue STEM in West Virginia

Jackie Shia, Director, Challenger Learning Center at Wheeling University

I’d like to share a story about Challenger Learning Center at Wheeling University and the impact we’ve had on our community in West Virginia. Back in 1994, we struggled to bring a Challenger Learning Center to our state because of how rural we are. The thought was that we wouldn’t be able to sustain ourselves, that there wouldn’t be enough students to reach . . . but we’ve been that little engine that could.

For nearly 30 years, we’ve broken down barriers to provide students with STEM programming—and not just within West Virginia. More than 310,000 students have come through our doors for on-site Center Missions, while over 10,000 teachers have participated in our professional development sessions. Our distance learning programs have been implemented 11,000 times and reached classroom students in at least one school in all 50 states and in 22 countries. We partnered with the West Virginia Department of Education to provide students at 15 state juvenile corrections facilities with e-Mission and e-Lab learning opportunities. This allowed these often-forgotten students to engage in hands-on experiments when they otherwise wouldn’t be allowed access to the materials needed for interactive lessons, like science labs. We’ve won awards from Challenger Center for our impressive accomplishments.

But the impact our programming has on students and the STEM workforce is immeasurable. We once had a local girl come through in 7th grade who wanted to be a veterinarian. I suspect it’s because it’s one of just a few jobs she knew about and was exposed to throughout her life. After experiencing our space-themed Center Mission, she changed her dreams and ended up in NASA’s Mission Control.

Another student, Jacob Ondeck, participated in a Center Mission as a student, then returned after college as one of our Flight Directors. He’s now working at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center creating the fuel that will one day get us to the Moon and Mars. Again, he came out of our little town in West Virginia.

An Upgrade That Will Continue Impacting Students for Decades to Come

This fall, thanks to funding secured by U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, we opened the doors to our newly designed facility, including a new Briefing Room, Mission Control, Transport Room, and Spacecraft (seen left-to-right below).

This new, state-of-the-art space simulator will allow us to continue engaging both local and regional students in STEM programming, as well as provide exciting and innovative distance learning programs to students across the state of West Virginia and nationwide. We can’t wait to see what our future, and the future of West Virginia students, holds!