The journey to establish a Challenger Learning Center in Alabama began in July 2022 with a group of fifteen businessmen and women, community leaders, and educators who expressed concerns about gaps in education and the need to widen the workforce pipeline of highly skilled workers. It was readily apparent that the goals of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education and its global network of Challenger Learning Centers Centers were not only closely aligned with the state’s current initiatives but also offered a hands-on learning experience in a unique space-themed environment.
Together we formed an Advisory Council to guide our efforts to bring a Challenger Learning Center to the state of Alabama.
With 50 letters supporting the initiative, the Advisory Council officially began pursuing a Challenger Learning Center of Northeast Alabama in February 2023. The name designation was very intentional as we are seeking regional support and partnerships to sustain the Challenger Learning Center of Northeast Alabama into the future. Furthermore, this center is envisioned as direct support to the local school districts as a regional STEM center.
To provide a mechanism for receiving donations, a Special Project Fund was established with the Community Foundation of Northeast Alabama for the Challenger project. Members of the Advisory Council became the first donors and champions for locating a facility in Etowah County. In addition, the excess funding in Alabama’s Educational Trust Fund (ETF) provided a unique opportunity to secure funding for the project. While pursuing funding for the construction of a facility, the Advisory Council contracted with the Armistead Group to conduct a feasibility study to test the interest in STEM education and potential financial support for sustained operations of a Challenger Learning Center. With 60 participants representing the service area, the study findings led to a positive recommendation to proceed with a major gifts campaign.
With the support of the Governor’s office, the local Congressional delegation, elected officials, school superintendents, and other key stakeholders, $8,500,000 was secured from the ETF Supplemental funds to construct a Center in Etowah County. In addition, a request for a $2,400,000 federal earmark to fund the Challenger Simulator from U.S. Representative Robert Aderholt has been passed by the Committee on Appropriations with full funding pending Congressional action on the proposed federal budget. Approximately, $1.1 million has been pledged or donated through foundation grants, community grants, and public/private entities to support the project.
The operation of the Challenger Learning Center of Northeast Alabama will be supported through strategic partnerships that offer services or in-kind support, annual fundraising, as well as revenue from non-mission STEM activities, professional development seminars/training, and corporate/team/leadership training for community groups or company leaders. Augmenting these funding sources, a robust grant writing program is planned and will be a significant source of funding for annual operations and programming at the Challenger Learning Center of Northeast Alabama.