Lance Bush, President of the Challenger Learning Centers for Space Science Education talks about his mission to interest kids in pursuing careers in science and engineering, how to motivate the next generation to truly look to the future. “The first person who will walk on Mars is alive today and in a classroom somewhere.”
For more information about Challenger Learning Centers, or to donate, visit www.challenger.org
Kevin: Welcome to Creative Futurism podcast. I’m Kevin J. Anderson.
John: And I’m John Best.
Kevin: And we’ve got a great show for you today and a really cool guest. Something that’s kind of near and dear to my heart. And I’ll give you a little background because as a science fiction writer of course I was always interested in the space program and NASA and exploring other planets. And I’ve got almost an odd story because when I was just a little kid I was watching Lost in Space and Star Trek and science fiction movies. And I remember I think I was seven years old when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. And everybody was glued to their television sets and everybody was watching when he came down the ladder and the eagle and stepped foot on the moon. And I remember my old aunts had tears running down their face. And my parents were all excited. And I remember looking at it and going, ‘Huh, did we do that already?’ Because I was watching science fiction movies all the time and I thought, ‘Where’s the monsters? This isn’t nearly as exciting.
John: Forbidden Planet, right?
Kevin: Yeah, but I grew up always following the space program. And I got my own telescope when I was in high school. I majored in astronomy because I wanted to be a science fiction writer and if you’re going to be a science fiction writer you have to know how like black holes and quasars and colliding galaxies and all kinds of stuff like that. But I also was following NASA, following the shuttle program. I saw a shuttle launch, an Atlantis launch in person down at the Kennedy space center. And I like just about everybody else in this country remember exactly where I was when the news of the Challenger accident happened. And that was such a huge effect on me for years. I mean that was sort of our-not exactly our first tragedy but it was really our first-you know if you’re going to go where no one has gone before sometimes it’s dangerous. And many years later after I had a career all on my own, science fiction writing, through another science fiction friend my wife and I got in touch with June Scobee Rogers whose husband was the commander of the Challenger mission. And June wanted to write a young adult science fiction series to inspire kids in science and space. And so, she started working first with my wife Rebecca but then I kind of came aboard to help write it. And we wrote a series called The Star Challengers about basically kids doing science stuff but there’s an adventure behind it. So that the readers were secretly being tricked into learning science while they were reading about alien invasions. We got to know June really well. And June is just-if you have a list of the most wonderful people in the world, June is sort of above the top of it. So, she’s great and she got me involved in her organization called The Challenger Center. The Challenger Learning Center where her goal was to get young people interested in science and technology. And eventually she asked me which means that you say yes because you never say no to June Scobee Rogers. She asked me to become a board member of the Challenger Center. And I’ve been serving them as a board member for probably ten years or so. I’m sorry, I didn’t look it up. Anyway, when you and I started this podcast one of my first guests that I wanted to have was the head of The Challenger Learning Center.
John: I remember that.
Kevin: Not June Scobee Rogers. But Lance Bush who was the president and CEO of Challenger Center. And Lance I’ve known for probably five or six years too and he’s a good friend of mine. But he’s also a really intelligent guy, very well-spoken guy. He’s nervous there in the background as we’re talking about him. But he’ll be on here in just a second. I’m going to give a quick little bio before we bring Lance on to start talking. Because I’m just really pumped about this. And I love this organization and what they do. Let’s see, Lance bush is president, CEO of The Challenger Center which annually serves about 260,000 students worldwide. The Challenger Center has been thirty years old. And we’ll talk about this, they have this amazing hands on, it’s sort of like a you are there simulator mission of moon missions and asteroid missions and stuff. And Lance has been-he’ll tell us how many years he’s been at The Challenger Centers. But he’s really helped revive it. He’s been a great support of the organization. In fact, Challenger Center was recently recognized by the National Science board public service award for its work to promote public understanding in science and engineering. And Lance started his career at NASA as a Chief Engineer. So, designing next generation space vehicles. So he really is a rocket scientist. He’s served as the Chief Strategic Officer at Paragon Space Development Corporation. And at that time Paragon was one of the Inc. 5000 fastest growing companies for five years. But Lance is going to talk with us about Challenger Centers and his work there. And now that I’ve filled the airwaves, welcome Lance, thanks for being on our podcast.
Lance: Thank you for having me on Kevin and Jon. I’m always thrilled to share the message of Challenger Center. And I have to say, on behalf of the other board of directors on Challenger Center, we are very privileged to have you on the board of directors. And I am-all of my friends know me as a rocket scientist but few people also know that I had a minor in art history. And as such, I had this very great appreciation and understanding that it was actually the artist, the writers, the filmmakers that created these vision of the future that us engineers came behind you and tried to create those. So, you are a natural fit with this organization and I pay homage to you for what you do in terms of inspiring people and thank you for serving our organization.
Kevin: Well, we’ve talked on the podcast before about how science fiction people made up things like the communicators on Star Trek and then engineers actually made smartphones. So the Challenger Learning Centers, why don’t you tell us what their mission is and what they actually do.
Lance: So, our mission is really to ignite the potential from within every student we see. Today’s students are tomorrows innovators. Too many of them lose interest in crucial subjects like science, engineering, technology at an early age. And that limits their opportunities in life, their career options in a global economy, and frankly we need them for the future challenges. So Challenger Center was created very specifically to give students an exposure to a variety of fields, a chance to work with their fellow students in real world scenarios, and open their eyes to new possibilities for the future. So what we created many years ago are these full on immersive simulations that takes you to the surface of Mars. The students are flying these missions. We have highly trained educators in there with the students but they’re just kind of a guide. The students have to have accomplished this mission on their own. And when they’re all done several things are accomplished. We’ve kind of tricked the kids into learning math and science. We’ve tricked them into realizing that it’s actually fun, interesting, at a critical age, that middle school age that perhaps they do want to continue to pursue this. To pursue careers and studies and have a passion for learning. And they have a great time doing it. And that’s what’s going to carry them forward. That’s The Challenger Center experience. I can probably talk a lot more. You’ve probably heard me say it before, as CEO I could probably talk for eight hours on this but I know the podcast is a lot shorter. So, I’m going to pause my comments there and let’s see where this conversation goes.
Kevin: And just to emphasize to the listeners here, The Challenger Center is an actual-it’s a thing. It’s almost like a movie set. A couple movie sets where sometimes they’re part of museums or planetariums. Sometimes they’re part of high schools or middle schools. Here in Colorado Springs we have one that’s part of surprise, Challenger school. And it’s broken up into two rooms. One is mission control which is on Earth, quote unquote. And then you go through like this air lock. They simulate it. I mean there’s flashing lights and stuff so that you think that you’re actually going up on the shuttle or going up onto the space station. And then the other half of the room, the other half of the movie set, they’re on the space station, they’re in the moon base. And they have to walk around and one of the students is assigned the communications officer. One of the students is assigned as like the geologist.
John: So, is one of them wearing a red shirt? Because that guy doesn’t come back. We know that, right?
Kevin: Oh, we don’t know that. They’re all wearing jumpsuits. You can’t tell if they’ve got red shirts on or not.
Lance: We don’t leave anybody behind.
John: Okay, just checking.
Kevin: But they do actual science. And if you don’t calculate your orbits right your space station might go down into the atmosphere. Or there’s always some emergency. Either there’s an oxygen leak or a meteor storm or something. But this is so immersive and you watch the kids and I’ve watched probably half a dozen of these things going and it’s an hour or two long. They just come out of this so amazed. And they feel like they really did it. And it just is so cool. I’m stealing all your thunder here Lance but I’m pretty enthusiastic about it. I think it’s really cool.
John: Well, let me ask you a few questions about it. So, I coach wrestling in a past life along with a friend of yours, Joe. So, I’ve been to this school and I saw what it was but I didn’t know what it was. You see what I’m saying? I saw like a section of it because we were coaching-we had a wrestling tournament there. So, how do you choose kids? How do you get the kids involved? Do you go to each school that’s in the district? Or how do kids get involved? How do they find their way to this? I assume it’s not just kids at the Challenger school but I’m assuming it’s a lot of them. But how does that happen?
Lance: Yeah, well one of the beautiful things about Challenger Centers is that we’re really an inclusive experience. We’re trying to reach all the students of different skill levels and abilities. And so, when we work with a community and we create a Challenger Center there we want to know even ahead of time there’s a model that’s set up that will include not just the students from that particular school or location but from all the surrounding schools. We can serve a school district of about a 50,000-student body. So we can see about 10,000 students a year in it in a Challenger Center. And they’ll come from visiting schools. From that school we can have Girl Scouts, Boy Scots, there are summer camps. So a lot of different ways to do it. But there is a minimum number of people you have to have and it really is an educational experience. It’s not just a fun thing. And so we even write these missions, these storylines that include science standards and math standards for the students. And the teachers are well aware of that when they bring them. So, there’s a real kind of designed way of getting students there.
John: So, when the students come in and-well first of all, does the school district have to pay or is this a-
Kevin: -Well, it’s like a field trip. The school is coming in as a field trip. And there’s a class that I think there’s one that runs in the morning and one that runs in the afternoon. But they’ll be bussed in. But what are the fees Lance? Is it part of the school budget or is it-I think The Challenger Center gets paid for each group of students that comes in, right?
Lance: Yeah, and frankly there are different models and different school districts do it different ways. We do not put any restrictions on how they use our Challenger Center other than we are trying to-when we started this organization thirty years ago, and I’ve only been here for the last five, the idea was to reach as many students as possible. And we’ve served over five million students to date. So, some of them they are owned by a school district, it’s in a school, and so the children on that school district just come and use it. Just like they go to history class they go to a Challenger Center mission. There are other places where it might be-
Kevin: -It’s more fun than history class.
John: Yeah, I’d take that over history. We didn’t have this option.
Lance: Yeah, I mean honestly there really isn’t any better way to do learning than
to do full on immersive simulations. I’m going to regress a little into kind of educational philosophy. But there’s different ways of learning something. And there’s passive learning like the history class, somebody talking at you. That’s passive learning. And there are educational gains when you move to active learning. And active learning isn’t really even that active. That’s just like you reading something or watching a video. You’re taking it on, you’re taking the action. But there are learning gains there. And you get learning gains when you do hands on experience and then you get even more learning gains when you do it in context in a simulation. So we are actually providing the most effective way of educating somebody. And I’m sure anybody listening to this can understand and appreciate that.
John: Oh yeah. It’s the pedagogical way of going about it, right? That’s what they taught us in school. I used to be an educator in a previous life. I found that the only way that I could keep a bunch of three year olds-pardon me, third graders attention was to bring in computers and things like that and have fun with them. Otherwise, I was just boring Mr. Best.
Kevin: But this is submersive. You see these kids going through the missions and it’s not a field trip anymore. It’s not them learning an assignment anymore. It’s that if they don’t get their calculations right their friends, their classmates who are up on the space station might not make it because the meteor storm is coming. And watching this-and one of the coolest things that again, Joe who’s my nephew in-law and he works for you, their daughter went to a Challenger experience. And she came out of it loving it. But you’ve got to understand, this is a person who’s a cheerleader and tumbling and math is not the thing. And she knows that her uncle Kevin and aunt Rebecca write books and didn’t quite now. And she was telling us about this Challenger etcetera experience and how great it was. And I said, ‘Well yeah, we wrote these Star Challengers books that’s set in that Challenger Center.’ And it just kind of blew her away because she was so enthusiastic with this. And of course, being a cheerleader she didn’t care about her science fiction books otherwise. I mean that hadn’t even penetrated. But that was just really exciting for her. And I thought, ‘You know, that is the tough audience.’
John: Oh yeah. If you got Marion interested you did something special. No doubt about it. So, let’s talk about the challenge of STEM at the moment. And I’m sure this is something that you’ve got a lot of statistics and things on. So, this is great that we have this response. And one of the challenges I have from the business side bringing this is so currently, I’m working on things like a blockchain, and a distributive ledger, high-level cryptography, academia’s not keeping up with us. And so, for me to find people a lot of the time I have to go out of the country. I don’t have a choice. I can’t even find a scientist who can deal with redundant Byzantine fault tolerance in this world or in this nation. So, give me some stats on what that looks like and what you guys are-the impact you’ve already had. And what you hope to achieve. And you mentioned at the top of this the concern and the impact it would have on our country. Maybe we can dig into that a little bit.
Lance: Sure, yeah. So, this is my chance to geek out a little bit and share with you kind of big vision and concerns and what we think we can do about it.
John: We’re all about geeking out so bring it.
Lance: Yes, exactly. So again, let’s put it in context. The world’s got a lot of challenge. How are we going to feed people in the future? How are we going to manage our population? All the issueas that are out there. And all of those have to be creative technology, innovation, kind of approaches. We’re going to have to really have some great thinkers. And as we look at that and I realize okay, I’m here running one of the organizations that pioneered STEM education. And so, we’re going to need more who are educated capable of being very functional in that future. Like you said, you have trouble finding them.
Kevin: Lance, can I cut in for a second? Could you explain what STEM education is for the people who don’t know.
John: Yeah, we can’t use acronyms. That’s a rule.
Lance: Yeah, sorry. I come from NASA where everything’s an acronym. So, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and math. It’s kind of just a big buzz word now to kind of pull together all these kind of technical fields of study and careers and talk about how we’re going to kind of educate people around that group of kind of careers and fields. So, if you hear me say STEM that’s what I’m referring to. So, the challenge here, when you say you that you can’t find enough people, it’s not that they’re dropping out in college. There is, there is that look to your left, look to your right, that person might not be there by the end of this curriculum or whatever. But the biggest period, the moment when the largest number of people decide that they are not going to be involved in careers in science, technology, engineering, and math is at the ripe old age of twelve. And I mean, think about that. This is like people. This is our whole population. And that’s a statistic that’s been around for a while, 50% of them. 50% of all students at that age decide at the end of middle school decide math, science are too hard, I didn’t have a good teacher, I don’t understand it, it’s boring. And we lose out on all those people. And then more and more drop off after that.
John: So, I was reading a book on this just recently. It was called Mindset. It was actually Carol Dweck’s Mindset. Have you heard of this book?
Lance: I have not. But I’m always looking for new stuff.
John: Well, this was actually mentioned in Satya Nadella’s new book Hit Refresh. Which he’s the new CEO of Microsoft. And he was talking about this problem with STEM. And I’ll throw in a little arms race that scares the heck out of me that I read about. So fixed mindset means I tried math, I’m not good at it, therefore I’ll never be good at it. A growth mindset says I tried math, I shouldn’t be good at it, I don’t know much about it, and then I’ll get better at it. But I think when we look at our entire culture as a whole lately we’re really falling into this fixed mindset trap quite a bit. Particularly our youth. Where I see it in wrestling a lot. Kids come out and expect to be Jordan Burroughs. Which you know, famous very good wrestler. And to put it in football terms, Joe Montana. And when they’re not, they just go, ‘Yeah, I’m out. Because I wasn’t special, I obviously don’t have a talent for this’ And so, I think you’re right on about overcoming that in that regard. So, interestingly enough a quick switch on this. Quantum computing is going to be the ultimate game changer for everything. Whoever gets there first, and we’re talking about qubits verses bits, and all of these things, is going to change the world. You talked about feeding the hunger you know. They’re going to come up with the right things to get fertilizer the right way so we don’t have to continue to do it the way we do with nitrogen. My challenge is it’s an arms race, right? Every country in the world’s trying to figure this out. Whoever gets there first, they’re going to be able to break our encryption. Put it this way, the current heaviest encryption that we have, it would take a classical computer, the one we’ve got sitting right in front of us a billion years to crack. With quantum computing it will take less than a minute. So, what are we going to do if we don’t have the people to win this race? I think that’s your point, right?
Lance: Yeah, absolutely. And we don’t know if that is a student who is in lower east Manhattan in one of the toughest neighborhoods in New York or they’re in Hazard County, Kentucky. Another tough neighborhood but in a different way, right? And all those kids, they’re our future. I mean they really are. [CROSSTALK] So anyway, what Challenger Center’s doing about that I mean we know that what we do-the simulation approach is really effective. I mean we were just acknowledged by the National Science board as being the organization whose kind of best educated the public about science. We have thirty years of experience. We have alumni who come back to us and say, ‘I remember the day I was there and I realized I can do this. I want to do it and I’m going to do it.’ Now they’re an engineer, they’re a doctor, a scientist. Having said all that, I nor my board is satisfied. Because when I look out there I say, ‘Yes, we’ve worked with over five million students. Yes, we have great success stories. Yes, I’m working with more than a quarter million students every year.’ But how many people in this country do you think we have that are under the age of eighteen? Like zero to eighteen crowd? What number is that?
Kevin: I have no clue.
John: I’ll take a guess just based on the last census in 2013 there were about 150 million people over eighteen that were what we call adults. So, I’m going to say 300 million because we’ve like tripled that size with the millennials and generation Z. Am I in the neighborhood?
Lance: So, while we’re-I thought the general population-the general population’s about 330 million total people-
John: -Okay, that sounds about right.
Lance: And so, we’ve got about I think it’s like 40-50 million under eighteen people. So, think about that. The fact is, here I am CEO of one of the leading-the pioneering, the leading STEM education organizations and we’re serving about 250,000 students. And there’s 50 million in the country. Now to be fair, I really only have to-we really only have to see them at one grade level, at one point. So if take that 50 million and I can see maybe five million of them each year, you know they cycle through, 2-3 million, then I’m getting to a huge portion of the population. Right now, I still need some work to do. So, we’re doing something and we’re saying, ‘Okay, we’ve got these Challenger Learning Centers. They’re very effective and we’re growing more. We’re building more.’ But building more Challenger Centers, those are Brick and Mortar facilities. They’re very capital intensive. And they’re very effective and we’ll never be able to replace them, their effectiveness. But how do we get to more students? And students that are in remote places. So we’ve built a platform to enhance what we’re doing and add to what we’re doing. It goes right into classrooms. It puts a simulation right on a laptop in a classroom that your average classroom teacher can operate and put in place for the students. And they can go to the bottom of the ocean or to Mars right there in their classroom. And we’ve already field tested a version of this and there are certain kids you cannot disabuse them of the fact that they were just talking to somebody under the ocean and they just saved that person’s life. And when we’re in Challenger Centers-they also by the way, there’s kids of a certain age that we cannot abuse them of the belief that at that point they’ve been to space.
John: Once they’ve been in there their parents have to talk them down.
Lance: Hey look, I do not try to talk them out of it because as a NASA rocket scientist I can say, ‘Look, Mercury’s in space, Venus is in space, hey Earth is in space. So, they were in Space today.’
Kevin: True. I remember seeing a commercial on TV not long ago. It was for a pharmaceutical or something. But the comment that really struck me was, ‘The person who will find the cure to Alzheimer’s is alive today.’ And we just basically have to find-I mean not find that person like Sarah Connor or something like that. But just the thought that the people who will make tremendous breakthroughs are young people today. And you can either discourage them so that you might put off those discoveries for a long time or you can encourage them. And that’s one of the real key things that Challenger does is to take kids who are twelve years old or ten or whatever age that they happen to go in there who don’t know what they want to do with their life. Dad’s an accountant so maybe they’ll be an accountant. Well actually, they don’t ever want to be what their parents are. But they want to design video games or they want to be a football player or maybe they want to be clothes designers or something. All of those people we need to say, ‘You know, you might really want to consider going into aerospace or engineering or something.’ Because we need the people who are going to solve the world’s problems to start thinking about solving them. Not to start thinking about, ‘I’m going to design clothes.’ Not that there’s anything wrong if you want to do be a clothes designer.
John: Well, let me throw an idea in there. So, you’re both actual scientists. I consider myself an engineer mostly. But one of the things I’ve been reading about a lot lately is called citizen science. Have you guys heard of this?
Lance: Oh yeah.
John: So, citizen sci-you want to give Kevin an explanation or you want me to?
Lance: No, you handle this one.
John: So, citizen science is where people are doing science themselves at home. So they’re figuring out things on their own. They’re creating their own. No, this is beyond that. This is like take your DNA and figure it out. And on home stuff. And the way they’re doing it is so I’ll give you an example, there was a guy who was going to be the head of the MIT. This was a Ted Talk I heard. There was a guy that was going to be the head of an MIT, one of the sections there. Some important section. He got here and just as he got here the tsunami hit Japan. And he was from Japan so his whole families in Japan. He can’t find out anything that’s going on. So he starts setting up people on Twitter and then they find other people. And then they figure out we need Giger calendars. And so they start making Giger calendars that you can make from off the shelf parts at Home Depot. Then they have them transferring to the cloud so they can tell where the radiation is in Japan. So the citizen science just gathered up. It’s called I think it’s safecast.com if you want to check out that site. And so, that’s just one example. There’s another example of a family where their child was given-both of their kids had that Benjamin Button type aging disease. Not the reverse but the other way so they were getting really old really fast. And they said they had like a thirty-year life span. And the parents tried to talk to some doctors. Found out that hardly any drug companies were working on this because it was a very rare disease. And they started doing it themselves. And they found just about a cure. I mean it worked on the DNA, it worked on everything.
Kevin: They were like outsourcing kind of stuff or just themselves?
John: Well, they found other people in the garage, but also other people. So they get online. They find-they need to figure out how to run this citrifuse thing. And so they get somebody. Or they find somebody online. Or they find information about it. And so my question, what seems like obvious to me is that I still think classrooms are great from a social aspect. But I know that a lot of kids are just learning from out there in it. It seems like there’s this-have you ever heard of what a maker space is Lance?
Lance: Oh yeah, yeah. We do know about makers space. And for those of you listening, it’s really kind of the woodshop metal shop of today. I mean there are different devices and things that you can in a rapid period you can actualize your own ideas and make things. At Challenger Center we’ve incorporated 3D printers into our missions. The students have to in fact-in some of them if something breaks in space and remember, you can’t just go over to the hardware store. And so, the students had to design the part that could help them fix it and put it into the 3D printer and get the part.
John: So, if I were designing one of those mine would be the big scene in Apollo 13 where they dump all the stuff on the table and go, ‘We’ve got to make one of these. And all we have is that.’ That would be my challenge for every kid every time they come. I would just say, ‘Here’s a bunch of stuff, good luck.’
Lance: Well and John, you know it’s funny because occasionally if somebody asks me what it’s like at a Challenger Center, and people more our age I’ll say, ‘Have you seen the movie Apollo 13?’ And if I get the nods I’m like, ‘It’s like living in that movie.’ Because that’s what happens, we always put what we affectionately used to call it now as in off-nominal situation. Meaning there’s a big emergency. And the students have to save their fellow students. The ones in mission control have to save the ones in the space craft. And they have to problem solve and communicate and do team work. All these 21st century skills and skills that you as a lawyer want to find in those people beyond even the STEM skills. We’re doing all that.
John: Yeah, and my point was on the citizen science, it just seems like there’s a great opportunity to start the Challenger website with-I mean there’s this magazine called Make that I just love because it’s just a bunch of stuff you can build out of whatever. And my dad, he was a NASA guy as well and he loved to build-my dad was the kind of guy that had an oscilloscope I think on the dinner table as well as on our regular table. [CROSSTALK] I don’t have my oscilloscope anymore, I’m not biasing tubes anymore. But as it came around to that sort of thing I feel like that a lot of these kids they expect this hands-on learning that you’re talking about. And they’re willing to go chase it themselves. Especially if there’s a purpose. That seems to be a big thing so I think you’re right on target there with the 3D printers and stuff.
Kevin: That’s the real difference though between the here’s your homework do your exercise give us your answer and uh oh here’s a problem you guys have to figure it out because somebodies in crisis up there on the moon base. And that’s what I liked about The Challenger Center. Some of the things-and not all of them do this and only some of them did, was kind of an interesting thing, that they had-not during the school time but because they have these facilities, some of them actually would contract them out for team building exercises for companies. Like management teams would go in there and they would go through them same exercises that kids do. And they would learn amazing stuff on how they have to cooperate and brainstorm and come up with things. And I mean that’s not the main thing. Although, I do want to throw out it’s challenger.org is the main website and you can look up where all the Challenger Centers are. And some of them, particularly the one here in Colorado Springs because I’ve been to it several times, they had this cool thing that like one Saturday a month when the Challenger Center wasn’t being used for schools that they opened it for the public. And you could come in and pay the cost. The $30 or I don’t remember what it was. It wasn’t very much. But I took my wife and I took my in-laws into one of these things. And my brother-in-law Tim.
John: See, your wife’s going to go along with that though. Most wives . .
Kevin: Yeah, but even the skeptical ones. Like her mom and dad, my mother-in-law who doesn’t have a scientific bone in her body went through this simulation and she was enthralled. And so, I just suggest look at challenger.org and find-
John: -Oh no, I’ll go even better. Let’s you and I go down to one. We’ll bring the microphones and we’ll interview and talk to people and sit at one. Are you up for it?
Kevin: We can do that for a podcast. You up for that Lance at some point?
Lance: That would be great to bring alive and hear from the kids. I mean we can talk about it but when you hear the kids. And just like the Apollo 13 when they’re all high-fiving and whooping and hollering because they saved it, the kids do that almost every mission. They have so much sense of accomplishment and pride and they leave their saying, ‘I can do this.’ I’m going back to what Kevin said a little while ago about that commercial where it’s like the person who’s going to solve this issue is alive today. At Challenger Center, and me being in the space industry, I’m well aware and my colleagues are, that the person that’s going to walk on Mars is probably in a classroom right now. And so we actually at Challenger Center, we refer to our students as the Martians of tomorrow. You’re the Martians of tomorrow. And this whole kind of prepping them for that works. Because who doesn’t want to go on one of the greatest adventures of exploring the cosmos and dodging life and death situations and saving your friends.
Kevin: Well, Matt Damon kind of had second thoughts I think.
John: Yeah, it didn’t work out well for him. He ate a lot of potatoes. But no, I completely agree. And I think that I know that those kids are out there. And I found it interesting at the top of this, you talked about working in other countries. And so I’ve recently just been around a bit. I was in Portugal working with a company doing A.I., artificial intelligence for lending. Basically coming up with new ways. We talked about this before that the current FICO system is not so good. We need to find better ways to determine people getting loans. And also, I was in Vienna. I went to a Hacker Space there which was really cool. I’ve got some pictures of that. So tell me about like the other countries that you’re in. So where else are you guys at?
Lance: So we’re at-yeah thanks. We have a Challenger Center in Canada. We have one in the United Kingdom. We have one as far flung as South Korea.
John: Let’s go to the South Korean one. We’ll do the podcast there.
Kevin: We’ll do the podcast there. We can write it off.
John: Yeah, we can write that off. Yeah.
Lance: We also have one in Hawaii. So choose carefully.
John: Oh, never mind. Change, Hawaii.
Kevin: I thought you had one in Australia too Lance? Did that not come through or maybe I’m just misremembering it?
Lance: We’re talking to Australia. So here’s the interesting thing is that there are more than thirty communities right now that we’re talking to who really want a Challenger Center. And those aren’t all domestic. We’re talking to people in Australia, more people in the U.K., we’re talking to people in Jordan, we’re talking to people in the United Arab Emirates, people in Israel. There are a lot of the countries out there that really understand and appreciate the need to educate their young people and get them engaged in the science and the math fields.
John: Man, you’ve got so much cool stuff. Like one of the cool things would be using some of the tech we have. What if we could connect them and do missions like together? Like Australia and Colorado Springs do a mission. And they have some dependency on each other and they’re forced to work together. That would be really cool. Just a real quick question on that too. Do you-so when I was watching The Martian, one of the things that I found very intriguing about it besides the whole hey we’ve got to figure out how to get back there in two years and all of that, but was even the budget and the money of it. It seems like there’s even an opportunity to take it back a step, to plan a trip like this, to have the skill to think in that linear way that would get you to the point where you have the resources to do this. I mean it feels like you could expand this in a lot of different directions.
Lance: Oh yeah. Well-
John: -And I know that’s the boring part. You three get to be the accountants that get to determine the budget for this flight. But there are some kids that would love to do that. You’d be surprised.
Lance: Well, we’ve done a little bit of creativity recently. We took one of our-we worked with one of our Challenger learning sites, helped them win a grant from NASA to get a CubeSat. Which is a very small satellite. And as such, we then converted their simulated mission control room into a real mission control room. And so, they use their control room sometimes for the simulation of going to Mars and what not in the Challenger Center sense. And sometimes to control their satellite in space. So, they’re all kind of creative things we’re looking at and working with folks.
John: So, that’s a connection to the citizen science, right? So, the last-you can go online right now and make your own CubeSat and get it in the low orbit. Launch it yourself here in Colorado Springs. And as a matter of fact, there’s been several people who have done it. We should definitely launch our own CubeSat. What would we do with it though?
Kevin: I’d put my books up in space.
John: No, they’re only this big. I guess we could put a USB stick in there. But it comes down to it just doesn’t last long. I think it will only-like a few days or a week or something.
Kevin: Mine crash and burn all the time anyways.
John: Okay, so they’ll know the feeling. It will be the same for them. Now this is fascinating.
Lance: Well, even on that citizen science edge, the new missions that we’re developing that-the diversion that we have going in the classroom, we’ve been developing materials that go with that. At the end of their mission it says to the students, ‘Hey, if you were really into this and you like this, here are five different activities that you can do on your own at home.’ And they can range from you can actually go do a project to you can write to your congress person to fund this initiative to a whole range of ways that you as a citizen want to be involved.
John: So, could that project that you made for the classroom, couldn’t that be put online? I mean it seems like gamifying it would be the obvious plan to where it was some sort of massively mutli-player universe that Kevin wrote up where everybody was sort of involved. But to win you actually had to do things that weren’t-it can’t be too kitchy. It can’t be like add four and four to get this apple or whatever. But it’s got to be within that realm. It seems like there’s an opportunity there too.
Lance: Yeah, and I think that can be done. But we focused really on a version that is a teamwork approach. And I know that the massive online multi-player you can do that. And we’re starting to think through this. But we’ve really liked that when we work with groups that are in the same room. Yeah, this teamwork and communication and collaboration that they’re going to experience in the real world that we really want them to have. To debate with their fellow teammates which solution they’re going to do. And let people step up and show leadership. And some of this you can do online but a lot of it is very difficult unless you’re there in person. So, for us we’ve chosen to stay in this model where there’s more of a human presence of togetherness.
John: Oh well that’s-if you know me I’ll try to make you do everything in the world.
Kevin: Well here’s another question. Because this kind of goes dub tails with stuff that I’ve been learning and working with just like my own writing career and building the fan club and all that kind of stuff. Is to wonder what kind of-I guess we’d call it flight paper that you’d use after it’s done. Because if I go to a book signing and I do a reading and everybody loves what they’re seeing and they love the book that they’re reading and they go great. But if I haven’t like got their name on my newsletter list then I can’t let them know when my next book is out and most of them won’t pay attention. So, if you’ve got all these people walking on air after they come out of a Challenger experience, they love space, they want to know more about it, is there some way that you have of trying to maintain that contact that they can join the after-school Challenger Center club online or something. Because if they’re that pumped up about it and you don’t give them a here’s something else that you can do to maintain your interest then you might-if you have 260,000 people a year coming through we want those 260,000 people. Not they get excited about the cheese factory where they go for their next field trip or something.
John: I do like the cheese factory. I think that would be fun.
Lance: That’s a great point. And any suggestions you have are welcome. But I will say this, these are the things that we do implement now. On our Challenger Learning Centers, this isn’t just like kind of a fieldtrip you come to the cheese factory and go home and that’s it. We actually-most of the Challenger Centers-in fact, the teachers are required to come do training. There are pre-materials that come to the classroom with the teacher. And when the students leave we’re giving the teacher these activities that they can do to help the students really grasp the concepts when they get back into the classroom. And remind them of how we were introduced to them in the experience. Now as to the students themselves, do they have the options to come back? Most of our Challenger Centers have weekend programs, summer camps, some will even hold birthday parties there if you want.
Kevin: That’s a cool birthday party.
John: Yeah, now I know where I want my next birthday party.
Lance: So one of the most rewarding things I always see is like at the end of a mission like I said, and we’re doing post briefing where students are really learning what they did and how they did it and sharing. But then, I’ll see two twelve-year-old girls high fiving and saying, ‘That was the greatest thing I ever did. And when can we come back? And I want to make sure we come here for summer camp.’ And so, we try to make things available for them. And we do let them know of other programs at Challenger Center. We’re not selfish about this. We’re really about educating and inspiring the kids. So if we’re aware of other programs in the area-in fact, because we are a physical facility in this virtual world-John, I’m going to kind of go anti-thesis to you. But in the quaint way it really helps our communities because now they have a nexus hub to come to. And so, we welcome in if you have Legos or you have Robotix. I mean you can use our facility and our rooms. And it becomes a really energized place and really helps lift up a communities education in that area and inspire the kids.
John: And that’s not anti-thesis at all. Because remember I was talking about the maker spaces. I think you should do this. I think you should put in like some sort of networking gaming center, right? And so they can come shoot each other like they like to in Call of Duty. But then turn that into the next simulation and say, ‘Yeah, you can do that.’ But for every four hours you put in you’ve got to launch a mission or whatever. But I’ve just got to tell you, I’m just proud to know you. And I’m so thankful that someone is looking for the guy who’s going to cure Alzheimer’s because I’m pretty sure I’m on my way. I haven’t had myself tested yet. I plan on doing that at home via my citizen science kit.
Kevin: A lot of us might be, we don’t quite know it yet.
John: We don’t quite know it yet. But that’s fantastic. But I want to ask one more question. Do you mind if I just take it off-topic just a little bit?
Kevin: Go. And I want to circle back to something else later. But go ahead.
John: Because we’re close to the time here. So, I saw that you were the Chief Engineer or the Engineer for designing space vehicles. So I’ve got to think you must have been involved in the Rover or some of those. The various Rovers. Did you have some work in that? Just curious.
Lance: No. So, fresh out of college I was very fortunate to join the legendary group at NASA Langley Research Center that designed Mercury. Some of the guys in there had designed Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Those were my mentors. So I was designing not the Rovers but the human space craft like the next generation space shuttle. And I even overlapped for one year with Catherine Johnson at NASA Langley.
John: And there’s a great example of what you’re all about. There’s a person who was somewhere that was the key point to get us to space. I mean she was around somewhere. That’s amazing. So you actually spent some time with her and knew her. That’s really cool. Very cool. Sorry I’m just a nerd about these things.
Kevin: Well, I was going to throw it back to kind of at the beginning. How I got into this in the first place was when June Scobee Rogers and my wife Rebecca, we put together these kids adventures. Remember the old Highland Juvenile science fiction things? The orphans in the sky?
John: Oh yeah.
Kevin: So like when you were a kid you would read these science fiction adventures. And people aren’t really writing those kinds of things anymore.
John: It’s all vampires and zombies.
Kevin: June wanted us to write a science based science fiction adventure that would get kids interested in space. And we wanted it set at the actual Challenger Center. And the story we came up with was I thought kind of clever as far as that the guy who runs our mythical Challenger Center, it turns out that he’s from the future. And it’s a future where it’s an alien invasion that’s kicked our butts. I mean some terrible crisis has happened in the future. But because our kids haven’t gone into science we don’t really have the resources to build the defenses against what we need. And so, there’s nobody to solve the problem and we get our butts kicked. But this guy, because of the convenient time machine, he escapes back to our time. And his job is to make sure that people actually learn science so that they’ll be around to save the world when they need to. And one novel called Moon Base Crisis, they go to the moon base in the future. And there’s Space Station Crisis and Asteroid Crisis. So those are three books where it’s kids go to a Challenger Center but then they get transported into the future where they learn the stuff that they will need to know to actually save the world. So that’s kind of a cool thing. And by writing those books which have been dozen sellers instead of million sellers. Oh no, they’ve done fine. But part of that money that we get from the books goes to the Challenger Center. But the Challenger Center is a non-profit. And they get corporate sponsorships and some other things. But Lance, I’m going to let you give your little pitch because some of our listeners here might be interested in contributing something. We’re going to have the Star Challengers books on our Creative Futurism website. So they can click and just buy the good books if they want to. But, say somebody wants to chip into your mission. How can they-
John: -Well, let’s say NASA credit union, who I’m pretty close with, is interested.
Lance: Oh, well look. If a listener wants to, really go to challenger.org. And I’m sure up at the top we have kind of a donate or get involved. But look, obviously I’m really biased but from my-as an ex-NASA rocket scientist type and somebody who’s spent his whole career trying to figure out how to make the world a better place for humanity, even as a rocket scientist. And now, this is a great organization to help young people to realize their dreams, to ignite potential in them. If you want to see a better world, let’s get them engaged in positive things. Let’s get them engaged in our future solving the great challenges. And it’s an exciting adventure. And we welcome individual donors and corporations. And we have a pretty in perpetuity partnership with NASA. And if you want to come along on one of the great adventures of your life, come join up with Challenger. We look for great partnerships anywhere and people who are passionate about what we do. And thank you John and Kevin for having me on and allowing me to talk about this fantastic organization.
Kevin: Well, I’m on bar right there with you. I’m really supportive of it. So that’s why we’re happy to have you on. And I think everybody was enlightened now because people might not have heard of it. And it’s just a cool thing to think about the future. It just really struck me that the person who is going to cure Alzheimer’s is around. And what you said, the person who’s going to walk on Mars is probably in a classroom somewhere. That we tend to think in the present. But the future is all around us. It just hasn’t happened yet.
John: Well it’s the old Bill Gates thing, right? We tend to overestimate the short term and underestimate the long term. We’re look at five to ten years to-I mean things are moving so fast. And without guys like you that are invigorating these kids and getting them off the video games then we’d be nowhere. So, thank you. It’s an honor to know you. Someone’s got to set us up to go down there and do a recording at the actual place.
Kevin: We’ll figure that out. We’ll get that on schedule and go do a Challenger-
John: -This will be my first, well second, onsite podcast. So, that’ll be fun. We’ll get some of the kids and we’ll do the whole thing. We’ll do it up. Do we get to launch anything while we’re there?
Kevin: Well, you get to not destroy something while we’re there. You have to save us. Well actually, one of the missions is to build and launch your own satellite.
John: We should write our own mission. Like we should work on our own. It’s all about like accounting and blockchain.
Kevin: You can write that one.
John: I tried.
Kevin: Thanks for coming on with us Lance and for sharing your wisdom.
John: Yeah. Everything including donations and everything will be on the website creativefuturism.com. And we’ll make sure that everybody has links and can easily put that in. As well as any kind of video or images we can find of these things including-I’m sure there’s pictures of the Challenger station here in Colorado Springs. So that will be fun.
Kevin: And say hi to June for us next time you see her Lance.
John: And the head and figures lady, now that I can’t remember her name for some reason. But yeah, say hi to her as well.
Lance: Well thank you gentlemen. I know that June would thank you as well for having us on and being supportive of our organization. And it was actually a pleasure of mine to have this casual kind of fun chat with you two. I’d love to continue it on other topics.
Kevin: Okay Lance, thanks very much.
Lance: Okay, thank you.
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