Blogs | 2.27.2023
From Maine to Mars: Inspiring the Next Generation of Scientists in Rural America
Challenger Learning Center of Maine kicked off February by bringing hands-on STEM activities to students at Whiting Village School in Whiting, Maine–a rural town in the northeast portion of the state with a population of just 481 residents. Their hope for the Maine to Mars STEM Night was to spark students’ interest in science, and hopefully a STEM career, by showing them what’s possible for their futures.
Thanks to NASA’s Community Anchor Award
Over the past year, Challenger Learning Center of Maine has diligently worked to reach underserved populations through the generous NASA Community Anchor Award. As part of the Next Gen STEM project, the award helps NASA share its mission and future exploration plans with a diverse audience. It’s designed to establish and nurture connections between local communities and NASA’s most exciting missions and milestones, bringing the excitement of space exploration to traditionally underserved areas and increasing student interest in STEM fields. This will help NASA reach young people in communities they might not otherwise reach.
The award has allowed Challenger Maine to bring virtual Mars programming to 13 rural schools across the state, as well as a virtual Girls in STEM Night with special guest NASA JPL Aerospace Engineer Richa Sirohi, which reached girls in 10 out of Maine’s 16 counties.
Mike Kincaid, NASA’s Associate Administrator for STEM Engagement, shared, “NASA has bold long-term goals, so it’s critically important that we reach students where they are and create opportunities for them to experience those feelings of discovery and confidence that STEM engagement is really all about.”
The culmination of this work was the Maine to Mars STEM Night. All Maine schools that were brought this virtual programming were entered into a special drawing to have this completely free event brought to their school and run by Challenger staff . . . in person!
Exciting Students and Parents Alike
As the awardee, the Challenger Maine team ran the Maine to Mars STEM Night event in Whiting’s two-room schoolhouse, Whiting Elementary, which serves just 27 students in kindergarten through 8th grade–combined. 26 out of the school’s 27 students, as well as additional homeschooled students from the area, were able to attend. They met the team with warmth, excitement, and an eagerness to help as the team unpacked their supplies.
But the excitement didn’t stop with the kids. Students and parents alike participated in hands-on activities meant to inspire and engage in topics such as NASA’s Return to the Moon and Next Leap to Mars. This included everything from creating and testing their own re-entry heat shields to engineering their own lunar landers to designing a truss structure before boarding the ISS using virtual reality software. The local town church that shares the lot with the elementary school opened its doors as well to accommodate the event, as STEM stations spilled out from the two-room school house into the church.
The night was capped off with impromptu stargazing in the school parking lot, affording incredible views of a sky unpolluted by city lights. It was a memorable night for both the community and Challenger Center of Maine staff.