ATWATER -- Up, up, and away.
That's where educators hope science scores of local students will go with a new teacher education program at the Castle Challenger Learning Center.
The STARS project -- which stands for strengthening, teaching, awareness and resources in science -- was recently funded by NASA and will allow the Castle center to spend $560,000 on specialized education programs for local teachers.
After the training, teachers will be able to bring their students to the Challenger Center for a free field trip.
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Fifty fifth- and eighth-grade teachers throughout Merced County will participate in the program within the next five years, passing the information along to as many as 4,500 students, said Manuel Aquino, science program specialist at Merced County Office of Education.
"We are honored to receive this grant, which will allow us to strengthen our professional development programs for local educators and help us to keep the spirit of scientific inquiry and exploration alive," said Thomas Tanioka, education director, Castle Challenger Learning Center Foundation.
Aquino said fewer students nationwide are enrolling in STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- degree programs. With a blossoming research campus in town, Aquino said it was important that local K-12 schools produce students who can go directly into the science programs at UC Merced.
"There's a lot of students in Merced County that will be exposed to this," Aquino said. "We will directly see the result of this in six years, when these fifth- graders will be applying to UC Merced."
The primary goal of the grant is to educate Merced County teachers, but the center is also using some of the money to create a new exhibit called S.O.S., Amanda Hartman, operations administrator at the Castle Center, said.
S.O.S. stands for "Science on a Sphere," a room-sized, global display system that uses computers and video projectors to display planetary data onto a six-foot diameter sphere.
The sphere will demonstrate the ocean's currents, night stars, weather patterns onto the massive, animated globe. There are fewer than 50 of the spheres installed in museums and other locations worldwide, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Web site.
Castle Challenger Learning Center is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
The Atwater location is part of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, an international, nonprofit education organization that was founded by the families of the astronauts lost during the flight of the Challenger Space Shuttle in 1986. The center operates 43 locations in the United States, in addition to three international sites.
Reporter Danielle Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.