Challenger Center hosted its annual conference from August 17-20 – albeit with a special twist this year. Due to travel and social distancing restrictions and recommendations, headquarters hosted the conference virtually via Zoom with members from dozens of Challenger Learning Centers across the country.

Smaller group of colleagues from Centers across the country met virtually in breakout rooms to discuss specific themes as part of Challenger Center’s annual conference.

The conference, held every summer, is a chance to share successes, challenges, updates, and ideas with colleagues that will help us improve upon our educational mission. While many colleagues missed the opportunity to give a handshake or hug in-person, one positive takeaway from the virtual event was the ability for more Challenger Learning Center employees to participate in the conference than ever before because they were able to attend the virtual meeting with just a click of a link on their laptops while working from their homes or offices.

The three-day conference kicked off on Monday, August 17 with a welcome from Lance Bush, Challenger Center president and CEO, and then presentations from several Centers about virtual programs and events, including virtual stargazing and Zoom Q&As with local astronauts and scientists, that have helped fill the limited hands-on educational options available during the COVID-19 pandemic.   Headquarters staff also led a discussion and demo surrounding our new classroom-based program, Classroom Adventures.

Challenger Learning Center alumni and Director of Advanced Concepts & Strategy at Blue Origin, Adam Wuerl, opened Tuesday’s meeting with a presentation about Blue Origin’s projects and Q&A session. Denise Kopecky, Vice President, Education at Challenger Center, then led a presentation about Challenger Center’s program updates.

“Conference is such a special time of the year for us because it’s some of the best feedback and interaction we get from our colleagues who are directly interacting with students and educators in their communities,” said Kopecky. “This year looked a bit different, but it was still a great opportunity to share some exciting updates with our team, including improved flight director controls, and incredible graphics and visuals, among other improvements. We’re looking forward to the day when Centers are open again and able to fly these new missions.”

Altering course and sharing new methods, protocols, and operations in the face of COVID-19 was a common theme during 2020’s conference.

“The resiliency and creative strategies our Centers have been able to put together this year have been nothing short of remarkable. It was inspiring to hear how everyone has been adapting, what we at headquarters can do to continue to support Centers, and what our Centers are hearing from educators in their communities during this difficult time,” said Lance Bush.

The final day of conference began in breakout rooms featuring discussions about Challenger Center’s overall strategy in the coming year, further discussion about new ways to reach students digitally, and simulator updates and enhancements. Participants were then treated to an incredible presentation by Gregory L. Robinson, NASA Program Director, James Webb Space Telescope about the construction and launch of the largest, most powerful and complex space telescope ever built and launched into space.

Wednesday’s exciting conversations continued when the annual awards were presented to the following winners:

  • Most Student Missions
    • Challenger Learning Center at the Powerhouse Science Center Discovery Campus
    • Challenger Learning Center of Colorado
    • Challenger Learning Center of Tallahassee
    • Challenger Learning Center of Woodstock
  • Most Teachers Trained
    • Challenger Learning Center of Colorado
    • Challenger Learning Center at the Discovery Museum
    • Challenger Learning Center of Tallahassee
    • Challenger Learning Center of Greater Rochester

Read more about our 2020 award recipients here.

Before signing off for the week, participants networked, socialized, and reminisced about shared Challenger Center memories. Even though the closest most employees will get to seeing one-another this year is over a Zoom screen, the annual conference brought comradery, inspiration, and hope to our Challenger Center community.