Lily Nguyen, an 8th grader at the Windham middle School, tries out the updated equipment at the Challenger Learning Center of Maine in Bangor in 2019. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

A Bangor learning center that simulates NASA missions for students wrapped up a year of offering free science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs for students in rural Maine communities using a grant awarded by NASA.  

Over the past year, the Challenger Learning Center of Maine offered STEM programs to 700 students ranging from kindergarten to 8th grade in 13 schools across Maine, according to Executive Director Kirsten Hibbard. The nonprofit targeted students in rural schools and female students throughout the state because they’re historically underserved populations.

The organization was able to host, travel to or offer digital experiences to rural Maine schools using a $25,000 grant from NASA it received nearly a year ago. The NASA Community Anchor Award directs recipients to bring space exploration programs to traditionally underserved areas and broaden student participation in science, technology, engineering and math.

If rural students can’t travel to the Bangor center, the nonprofit offers virtual programs developed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Activity leaders can also bring STEM-focused activities to schools such as wind turbine design and Lego robotics programing.

“For rural towns to physically come to us, it can be far away and they need bus funding, or to coordinate a ferry to the mainland if they’re on an island, and that can be so hard for very small schools,” Hibbard said.

For its final program offering using the NASA grant, program leaders traveled to a kindergarten through 8th grade school in Whiting that has 26 students.The learning center organized a “Maine to Mars” STEM night for the school and community on Feb. 1.

The Bangor center opened in 2004 and is part of a network of Challenger Learning Centers scattered throughout the U.S. The families of the crew who died aboard the Challenger mission in 1986 founded the centers to carry on the crew’s legacy, Hibbard said.

The center welcomes students from across Maine and offers programs that simulate past and future NASA missions such as collecting samples from a comet or going to Mars. Students can choose a STEM career for the day, such as a navigation specialist, biologist or geologist, and use

Students work in rooms at the center that are replicas of NASA’s mission control in Houston, and the inside of a spacecraft, Hibbard said.

The nonprofit’s goal is to give students an experience they may not otherwise have in school with the hope they enjoy and seek out more experiences, and potentially a career, in STEM, Hibbard said.

“What we’re trying to do is spark an excitement,” Hibbard said. “We want to give them exposure to something they find they’re interested in. We want them to think, ‘Is this my passion? Is this something I could do?’ This magic could happen in so many other communities in Maine.”

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Kathleen O'Brien

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...