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Plans for Challenger space simulator moving forward with developer, architect on board

| Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014, 10:15 p.m.

Plans are coming together for the proposed new Central Allegheny Challenger Learning Center on the Indiana County Technology Center campus in White Township.

The CACLC Committee in January celebrated receiving $1,365,000 in Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant funds through the state's Office of Budget. After hiring developer Impact Pennsylvania Strategies, LLC to coordinate the design and construction of the 10,000-square-foot regional educational facility, the Challenger project group will soon be meeting to review a preliminary draft of the center's design submitted by Pittsburgh architecture firm Desmone and Associates and will be hammering out a timeline for the project.

“We're moving along according to schedule,” said committee chairwoman Julia Trimarchi Cuccaro. “We wanted to have our design schematic pretty well finished by the end of August, so I would say we're getting our first crack at it. The final (draft) should be ready about exactly on time.”

The committee is finalizing details for the center's construction schedule and a total project budget. The group decided to hire Impact Pennsylvania Strategies to make the most of its RACP money. Impact president Larry Segal served in the administrations of Governors Tom Ridge and Ed Rendell and, since forming the company in 2007, has handled dozens of projects using RACP funds.

“That was important to us because we really wanted to leverage our RACP grant,” Trimarchi Cuccaro said of Segal's experience. “We were specifically looking for someone to help us leverage that.”

Desmone and Associates is collaborating with Chicago-based Legat Architects on the design. Wesex Corporation of West Middlesex has been tabbed as the builder.

The CACLC's centerpiece will be a NASA simulator that allows students to participate in virtual space missions integrating and promoting math, science and technology skills.

The center will be the first of its kind in Pennsylvania, and it has the potential to serve hundreds of thousands of students from a 22-county area.

The simulator itself — estimated on the CACLC website, pachallenger.org, to cost around $900,000 — will command a significant portion of the project's total budget.

“We're going to be buying a state-of-the-art NASA simulator. I think we'll have arguably the finest simulator in Pennsylvania, but it's not inexpensive,” Trimarch Cuccaro said. “... People are realizing that, to deliver sensible solutions for students in terms of their academic pursuits and their careers and workforce development, I think people that are interested in this level of education understand it's best done through some sort of an educational consortium for it to be affordable. It's very difficult for individual school districts, even larger ones, to afford all of this kind of stuff on their own, because the costs are quite high.”

While construction and equipment costs for the center are substantial, school districts won't be forced to break the bank to implement the Challenger Learning Center curriculum or send students to “fly” simulated missions. The cost for the six-week class and mission at the CACLC should be about $750 for a group of around 30 students, Trimarchi Cuccaro said.

“Challenger offers a six-week class that culminates with a trip to the Challenger Center, if the school districts wish, to run a mission,” Trimarchi Cuccaro said. “But it starts with one or two days of teacher training so they understand... The teachers can get a good idea of what's going to happen on this space flight and they start to get the students ready for what they're going to have to know: A little bit about graphing, mapping, math, all kinds of things.”

Part of the group's initial fundraising for its application to the national Challenger Center for Space Science Education involved securing donations of $1 per student from Indiana County school districts. Now that the project has progressed and is entering the design phase, it's piquing interest from a wider area.

“We're starting to get more and more requests for information from the outlying 22 counties, not the least of which is half of Allegheny County,” Trimarchi Cuccaro said. “We're starting to see some real pick-up in this project, and I think it's going to be great once we actually have our drawings ready to go and our budget. We're pretty close now, so it's exciting.”

Greg Reinbold is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at (724) 459-6100, ext. 2913 or greinbold@tribweb.com.

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