Blake's Brainiacs: Expedition Mars launches kids into STEM

Kaiti Blake joins fall advisory mission at SAC's Scobee Education Center

SAN ANTONIO – 3, 2, 1, liftoff!

The Expedition Mars fall advisory mission blasted off Friday from the Scobee Education Center at San Antonio College, sending a team of seasoned scientists, engineering and robotics students and KSAT meteorologist Kaiti Blake boldly going where Blake's Brainiacs have never gone before -- to Mars.

The program is one of several offered by the Challenger Learning Center at Scobee. It aims to send children on a trajectory to apply what they learn in the classroom to a real-life scenario in a state-of-the-art simulated learning environment. 

"A lot of kids ask, 'When am I going to need to use this? Why am I learning this?' And when they get into the Challenger mission, it becomes pretty obvious that a lot of these things are quickly applied," said Rick Varner, the center's director.

"It's important in a big city like San Antonio … to have a place like this where kids can come and just kind of think about what are their passions," retired astronaut Eileen Collins said.

Collins joined Blake and her team for Friday's mission. After a briefing, half of the group embarked on a journey through the Challenger Learning Center's shuttle simulation from one of Mars' moons, Phobos, to the surface of the red planet. The other half of the group ran mission control.

Blake's Brainiacs Slideshow: Meteorologist Kaiti Blake, team go to Mars in simulation

Once on the shuttle, or Mars Transport Vehicle, center staff divided Blake's group into two-person teams based on their area of expertise. Collins' team focused on navigation, while Blake's team focused on weather conditions. Other teams were assigned other STEM subjects, such as robotics, biology, geology and medicine. Each pair solved problems and communicated their findings with mission control. After the mission, the two groups switched places.

"I loved it. I thought it was very similar to the type of training that I did when I was an astronaut," Collins said. "There's (a) little bit of pressure. There's a time limit, and you've got to get those math calculations or you've got to make your decisions."

Challenger Learning Center missions are designed for students of all ages, pre-K through high school, and adults are welcome, too. There are also specially designed workshops for teachers.

"They're given materials that enable them to do an entire unit, an interdisciplinary unit, that's connected to the standards that they already need to teach in the classroom," Varner said. "They go through the experience you saw today. They go back to the classrooms, and then they have the follow-up activities."

Most of the money for these missions comes from donated funding, and patrons can designate their donations for particular groups.

"They'll donate funds specifically to classes to be able to come to our center and take part in these missions," Varner said. "Many times, they will designate them to be provided to Title I classes."

Staff members at the center hope the missions and the planetarium will inspire children to expand their horizons, reach for the stars and embark on careers in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. And with future missions to Mars at stake, Collins stressed the need for future scientists and NASA personnel.

"Every single career that you can think of supports the space program somehow. The space program has lawyers, doctors, artists, janitors, people doing all kinds of things from A to Z," Collins said. "It's so inspiring, to me, to think one of these young people could be the person who discovers life on another planet."

WEB EXTRA: Retired astronaut Eileen Collins' advice to children 

The Scobee Education Center will soon celebrate NASA's 60th anniversary with a Mars-themed event for families. The Journey to Mars community engagement day will take place on Saturday, Oct. 6, on the San Antonio College Campus, located at 1819 N. Main Ave.

About the Author:

Diana Winters is a San Antonio-area native, Emmy award-winning and GLAAD-nominated journalist who loves the Alamo City. She is the executive producer of SA Live, creator of South Texas PRIDE and co-creator of Texas Eats.