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June 11, 2014

Young minds take flight at Astronaut Academy

Almost two dozen children lined up in the parking lot of the Challenger Learning Center in Columbia to launch the rockets they had built on Tuesday. One by one, with the help of their “flight commander” instructors, campers loaded their pencil-shaped rockets onto a launch pad, then counted down to blast off.

COLUMBIA, SC This isn’t your average summer school – this is fun.

The day started with a rocket launch, followed by model plane-building and finished with a flight simulator. Wednesday was aviation day at the Astronaut Academy, a week-long summer camp devoted to robotics, rocketry and aviation.

Almost two dozen children lined up in the parking lot of the Challenger Learning Center in Columbia to launch the rockets they had built the day before. One by one, with the help of their “flight commander” instructors, campers loaded their pencil-shaped rockets onto a launch pad, then counted down to blast off.

With the press of a button, 9-year-old Rachel Sellers watched her rocket sail toward the sky, the highlight of her week so far.

Since a visit to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., over spring break, Rachel has been all about space all the time, said her mom, Holly Sellers.

“Before that, I wasn’t really interested in space stuff,” Rachel said. “Then after the Kennedy Center, it changed my life. I like space a lot, so I came to this camp, and it’s really fun.”

She’s joined 21 other kids, ages 8 to 12, in programming robots, constructing different types of rockets and learning about the physics of flight this week. Thursday, the final day of camp, they will complete a simulated space mission to land a craft on the moon.

The program offers children a chance to learn without necessarily realizing they’re learning, said Carolyn Donelan, director of Richland District 1’s Challenger Learning Center. Programs like the Astronaut Academy can whet their appetites for learning by teaching them in an engaging, hands-on way, she said.

“They’re learning new stuff. They’re using skills that they’ve already learned, they’re applying the science, and it’s a different kind of learning,” Donelan said. “It’s really important to give kids exposure to all these different types of activities because if they don’t know about it, they don’t know about all the jobs that are out there.”

Lena Lee said the camp has definitely piqued the interest of her 12-year-old son, Chapman Lee. He’s come home every day talking to his family in “all the new lingo of space stuff” he’s been learning about this week, she said.

Chapman has always had an interest in reading science fiction rand a natural curiosity, his mother said, so the camp has been a perfect fit for him.

“He loves it. He loves camp, so this is right up his alley,” Lee said. “I’ve got to find more (science camps).”

Chapman said he might one day want to pursue a career as an astronaut or robot programmer.

Getting children interested and excited about potential careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is the goal of the Challenger Learning Center, Donelan said.

“If we can get them interested in it, then they’ll care what they’re learning in school,” she said. “And if they do well in school and get exposed to these different career options, then they know what’s available, and they know that they’re capable of doing it.”

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