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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, April 19, 2010

School space center could get cut

By Suzanne Roig
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

At the Challenger Space Center, Moanalua Elementary students in mission control analyze data from a space station to determine if conditions on board are safe.

SUSAN LUM | Challenger Center

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The Challenger Space Center at Barbers Point Elementary School faces the biggest challenge of its 17-year history: budget cuts.

The center, which has seen more than 5,000 students a year, is on a long list of possible cuts provided to state lawmakers by the state Department of Education. Its future, along with programs that range from the dorms at Lahainaluna School on Maui to campus security, are in the hands of lawmakers who had indicated to the Board of Education that it may need to cut programs, said BOE spokesman Alex Da Silva.

"This is just a recommendation to the Legislature," Da Silva said. "The goal is to preserve the weighted student formula. It's not like we don't know that the program is valuable, but we're trying to preserve the core services of the schools."

In a state with two of the world's greatest telescopes, Hawai'i needs to encourage youngsters to become future scientists through programs like the Challenger Space Center, said Gareth Wynn-Williams, an astronomy professor at the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa who is also president of the Hawaii Academy of Science, which runs the Hawaii State Science and Engineering Fair.

"The space program is a great way to get schoolchildren interested in many kinds of science and it would be most unfortunate if this center had to close for lack of funds," Wynn-Williams said.

The center is one of 14 around the globe and the only one in Hawai'i, the birthplace of Ellison Onizuka, who died in 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger exploded minutes after takeoff.

Students begin with two months of classroom preparation that culminates in a two-hour simulated space mission at the Challenger Space Center. Their teachers must attend two- to three-day summer training sessions.

"We're a core-content learning center because we use all the skills," said Liane Kim, the commander of the Hawai'i center. "It is not just a field trip for the students. This is an experience that the students would never get in the classroom. We're the jewel of the Department of Education."

When they finally get to the center, students don blue spacesuits and participate in one of two missions based on either the NASA Johnson Space Center or the interior of a space station center.

Sixth-graders rendezvous with Comet Halley and learn about studying a comet, based on real-life scenarios. Seventh- and eighth-graders return for a moon mission where students lead a simulated lunar landing, learning what it takes to land a man on the moon.

It costs about $250,000 a year to run the program, which has four full-time employees, Da Silva said.

"We're trying to tell people that if the budget cuts go through, there are private schools that go to the Challenger Center and the community could step in and help fund it," Da Silva said. "Or someone could adopt it."

Christina Shioi, an 11-year-old sixth-grader at Momilani Elementary School, recently went through the program. Shioi was on the life-support team making sure the oxygen tank in the simulated lunar lander was full.

"We had a successful mission," she said. "It's fun because you get to see how real people in astronomy work."

Shioi's classmates will write their reflections on their mission, using their writing and evaluating skills, Kim said.

"We looked forward to this," Shioi said. "This center was Ellison Onizuka's dream."