WOW! Magazine: The Challenger Learning Center at Paducah


Imagine getting a call at the bank asking if someone could store moon rocks in your vault!

Seems a bit far-fetched for Paducah, KY, but that’s exactly the call Paducah Bank’s Marketing Director, Susan Guess, took earlier this year.

As it turns out, the Challenger Learning Center, located on the campus of West Kentucky Community and Technical College (WKCTC), has two certified educators, both of whom are qualified to borrow real moon rocks from NASA.

Education Coordinator Jennifer Collier and Center Director Mellisa Duncan were granted permission to use the moon rocks in educational seminars with students at the center.

In order to secure the moon rocks from NASA, Challenger Center staff had to find a secure storage place for the rocks when not in use. That’s where Paducah Bank came into the picture.

“We didn’t have a safe or any other secure location in which to store them,” said Mellisa. “I contacted Susan Guess and asked if we could use a safe deposit box for the month the moon rocks were here. She graciously gave us one!”

During the 1960s and 70s, Apollo astronauts brought 840 pounds of moon samples back to Earth. Those samples are now stored in heavy, acrylic disks that are shared with educators, museum personnel, and science center staff to be used as educational tools.

Though the disks contain only small fragments of the rocks, students at the Challenger Center were in awe of the three samples the center was able to obtain.

“When most people think about moon rocks they have in their head something rather large,” said Mellisa. “So when they first saw how small the rocks were, they were initially a little disappointed. But when we emphasized the fact that these really were from the moon, and that they were billions of years old, they got over that disappointment pretty quickly.”

Though the moon rocks were used as part of the children’s educational programs, the Center hopes to bring them back for a public event in the future.

Over the past ten years, the Challenger Center has provided real-life experiences and unique educational opportunities to children and adults in Western Kentucky. Their goal is to promote education in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), which will then help lead students to pursue careers in those areas of study.

Since their doors opened in 2002, the Center has hosted 60,000 school-age students through their educational programming.

“The United States, as a whole, and Kentucky, as a state, are lagging behind in the number of graduates who pursue a STEM career,” said Mellisa. “Students come to the Center as elementary and middle school students; then attend WKCTC; and then go on to the UK Engineering program in Paducah. We are the first step in that continuum.”

The Challenger Learning Center was founded through a partnership between Paducah Junior College, Inc. and the West Kentucky Community and Technical College. With help from Congressman Ed Whitfield, the Center also received valuable federal funding.

They serve students ranging from preschool to college through summer camps, a portable planetarium program and after-school programs. With the retirement of the NASA Space Shuttle program, the Challenger Center’s role has become even more vital to space education.

“Challenger Learning Centers are needed now more than ever to keep the interest in human space flight alive,” said Mellisa. “We fly students to Mars, comets, and the moon. For that to really happen someday, we must continue to cultivate the seed of exploration in our students.”

The Center also provides corporate programming for firms seeking ways to build teamwork amongst their employees. For more information, visit