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NASA-affiliated program gets thumbs up from Armstrong County

| Friday, April 19, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

KITTANNING — The final frontier may soon move a little closer to students in Armstrong County.

County commissioners adopted a proclamation on Thursday to help establish and support the proposed Central Allegheny Challenger Learning Center — a NASA-affiliated program that provides students the opportunity to man simulated space missions to virtual versions of the Moon, Mars, a comet and low Earth orbit. The proposed center would be built on a site in the Indiana County area.

Julia Trimarchi, chairperson for the committee to bring a CLC to Western Pennsylvania, said participating school districts would integrate elements of the Challenger Center curriculum into about 60 hours of learning and preparation for the simulation. Students would then travel to the regional CLC location for one day to play a specific role in a simulated mission.

“The software for the Challenger Center comes from NASA,” said Trimarchi. “The simulation software makes you feel like you're really on a space ship.”

The goal, she said, is to cultivate an early interest in science, technology, engineering and math among students in fourth through eighth grade and to facilitate an opportunity to use real-world applications of what they learn. She also said the center plans to offer a “Micronauts” program for younger children and advanced level classes in physics and chemistry for older students.

“(The CLC will) try to get students interested in science and math before they get to eighth grade because we find all across the country that, by eighth grade, those PSSA scores start to plummet,” said Trimarchi. “We want to try and get students interested at a younger age so they can take advantage of more math and science courses so they can get better jobs when they graduate high school.”

Trimarchi said the group already had agreements with Indiana and Cambria counties along with Indiana Area School District, Homer-Center School District and Blairsville-Saltsburg School District before Armstrong County signed on.

“The Challenger Center is moving forward at a relatively rapid pace,” she said. “We're making arrangements next to go to Westmoreland and Clearfield counties and we plan to have our application fully filed with the Challenger Foundation by the middle of May.”

The first Challenger Learning Center opened in 1988 at the Houston Museum of Natural History and the program has grown to include 45 learning centers in the U.S. and centers in Canada, the United Kingdom and South Korea. Trimarchi said the Central Allegheny Challenger Learning Center would be the first in Pennsylvania and could potentially be utilized by districts within a two-hour driving distance of the Indiana County hub. Walter Schroth, vice president of the Indiana Area School District board of directors, said the group is considering three potential locations in the Indiana area where a center could be built.

“We're going to try to raise the money to build the facility through state and federal grants, foundations and private donations,” said Schroth. “The cost to the local taxpayer will be very minimal. Basically, the school districts will pay a fee to send students to learn these missions for an average of about $25 per student. That's very reasonable for what these (students) actually get out of this.”

Trimarchi said that, if approved and funded, the Central Allegheny Challenger Learning Center could be up and running within two years.

In other news, the Armstrong County commissioners unanimously adopted a resolution to apply for additional Main Street Program funding from the Department of Community and Economic Development for the Freeport-Leechburg-Apollo Group, known as FLAG. The group is requesting about $6,700 from the state to improve the facades of two Leechburg buildings. Carmen Johnson, assistant director of Armstrong County Planning & Development, said the county doesn't have enough funds remaining from a $225,000 grant through the Main Street Program to complete those projects. “The grant contract expires in June this year,” she said.

Commissioner Dave Battaglia noted that the county business office received a phone call from Kiski Township resident Regina Liermann in opposition to the resolution. “Her concern is that grant money is actually tax money and that it could affect taxes,” he said. “But this is money allocated by the state, is already there and goes away on June 30. It does not affect the future budget.”

Commissioner Rich Fink applauded the group's efforts to revitalize their communities.

The resolution is subject to solicitor approval.

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