Thomas Patty has been to Mars thousands of times.
As part of the Voyage to Mars Mission simulation at UTC's Challenger Learning Center, Patty, the center's director, has led thousands of middle school students as they launch a probe to one of the Martian moons.
"NASA should have just called us," he said referring to the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars last week. "We could have told them what to do."
The Challenger Learning Center network, which consists of 48 centers internationally, works to improve education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, particularly in the United States.
This year, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga center will host the 2012 Challenger Center for Space Science Education conference, which begins Monday. The conference brings together representatives from Challenger Centers around the world to discuss programming and best practices.
The conference will be addressed by Alexander "Jeff" Jefferson, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen's Red Tails squadron, as well as astronauts including Kathy Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space.
The center also will host the first Challenger Legacy Awards, which will honor those who have continued to help build the center.
"We are tremendously excited to host the International Challenger Center Conference in my hometown this year," said Chattanooga resident June Scobee Rodgers, founding chairwoman of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education and widow of Challenger space shuttle Commander Dick Scobee. "It is with pride that I am able to honor distinguished citizens who not only helped to build the Challenger STEM Center on the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga campus, but also have supported the international programs of Challenger Center for the past 16 years."
Rodgers brought together the family members of the crew of the Challenger space shuttle shortly after it exploded in 1986, killing her husband and six others onboard. The families founded and incorporated the first Challenger Center in Houston by April 1986, three months after the explosion.
"We wanted to continue the education mission that Challenger was supposed to do," she said. "They've been so well received as an example of STEM education. I take great pride. Not only did the seven families of the [crew] members work with me to bring this together, they've worked to continue the program."
At the Challenger Center at UTC, Patty and the staff have worked to extend programming beyond the simulation-based curriculum, which is geared toward middle-school students. The center also offers learning programs that target elementary-aged students, and also provides leadership and team-building activities for all age groups.
"If you don't have students pursuing STEM degrees, then your ability to develop your society diminishes," Patty said. "Those groups are the ones that move society forward. That's where America has fallen behind."
The center has partnered with the Hamilton County school system to increase STEM education in area schools, as well as providing training for teachers in STEM subjects. It is developing a remote curriculum to give students an opportunity to experience different simulations without leaving their classrooms. The first program will focus on natural disaster relief and be geared toward middle school students, but they hope to eventually extend it to all age levels.
"I believe there are approximately 400 middle schools in the state and, in any academic year, I may see 75," Patty said. "If I can deliver a product that I can deliver to schools instantly, I've increased the tools at the teacher's disposal."
The goal, Patty said, is to increase the number of students able to experience Challenger Center programs in some way.
"Students come in here and they go, 'Wow, this is interesting,'" he said. "We've got to get that feeling down into the classrooms."