Isle Students’ Eyes On Space

A new generation of young space enthusiasts are enthralled with the vision of Ellison Onizuka, who perished 73 seconds after a shuttle liftoff that fateful day in 1986. More than a quarter of a century later, the Challenger Center Hawaii (CCH) celebrates its 20th anniversary and perpetuates Onizuka’s lega cy, while the Oahu youth program produces a new breed of explorers who use space strategies as effective tools to prepare them for their journeys in life.

Niu Valley students on a mission at the Challenger Center | Mitchell Chan photo

“Ellison believed in shooting for the stars … that dreams are achievable, and emphasized the value of education when he visited public schools,” says Liane Kim, the head of CCH, who, with retired teacher Maryann Kobayashi, co-founded this innovative initiative. Operated by the Leeward District of the Hawaii Department of Education, the space program is part of an international network of learning centers established in memory of Challenger crew members, particularly Onizuka and teacher Christa McAuliffe. CCH is the 14th center set up in the United States, Great Britain, Canada and Korea by the Challenger Center for Space Science Education.

Kim and her hardworking staff – consisting of full-time teachers Susan Lum and Wendell Thomas, and part-time instructors Eleanor Onizuka and Claire Okazaki – train middle-school teachers to guide their students to apply creative and critical thinking while participating in space missions. Barbers Point Elementary serves as mission control center. Some 100,000 sixth- through eighth-graders have performed astronaut missions since 1993.

“A proven track record of quality, hands-on education exists, and the Challenger Center Hawaii is aimed at cultivating the talents of island children,” says Kim. “Students discover their abilities in problem-solving, responsible decision-making and team-building, while executing collaborative space exploration scenarios,” she adds.

In six years, Holomua Elementary School teacher Will Kane has trained more than 200 participants in “Rendezvous with Comet Halley.” The space program simulations gave his students opportunities to master skills in all subjects.

“Science is no longer boring, because Challenger changes the kids’ mindset as they set benchmarks across the board, including science, mathematics, language and fine arts. There is no other science program that balances the need for scientific knowledge, with the enjoyment that comes in discovering new ideas and one’s own potential,” says Kane.

When the state House of Representatives recognized the center’s 20th anniversary in April, Liane Kim was surprised when Rep. Lauren Cheape took to the floor and shared her “mission control” experience in the fifth and seventh grades: “Preparation, dedication and teamwork were skills that I gained from Challenger, and applied them to my academic endeavors, my collegiate athletic career, the Miss Hawaii and Miss America pageants, and as a public servant representing House District 45.”

This STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) learning center inspires students like 12-year-old Mayo Woo, the winner of the 20th anniversary Mission Patch Contest.

“Challenger Hawaii continues to motivate children like me, and we are fortunate to have this once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she says. Woo and her classmates learned navigational, life support, communication and team-building skills. They embarked upon similar challenges actual NASA astronauts and mission controllers face.

“The future looks promising for these students, and who knows, we may soon send another Ellison Onizuka into space. We are pleased to have touched the lives of thousands of elementary school participants who abide by Ellison’s motto, ” Make Your Life Count and the world will be a better place because you tried,” concludes Kim.

Onizuka once said, “Your vision is not limited by what your eyes can see, but by what your mind can imagine.”

Though our last visual memory of Ellison Onizuka was the day Challenger vanished into a horrifying trail of white ash 27 years ago, I only can imagine that somewhere out there he is looking over the center with great pride, saying, “Mission accomplished! May more continue to go boldly where many Hawaii Challenger students have gone before.”