The headquarters of the Richland One School District in Columbia. (Photos by Tyler Fedor)

Columbia High School and an elementary and middle school within a block from the Challenger Learning Center will host new aerospace-focused classes open to  Richland One students districtwide.

The new classes, which are part of a MAGNET program, are thanks to a $14.9 million federal grant awarded to the district. The elementary and middle school classes will focus on aerospace technology, and the high school classes will focus on national defense.

The grant will allow the younger students to do more with the Challenger Learning Center, which was created in 1996 with support from former NASA head and Columbia native Charles Bolden. It’s a “living memorial to the heroes of the Challenger 51-L crew,” astronauts who perished in 1986 during a shuttle launch and included another S.C. native, Ron McNair of Lake City.  

The Challenger center offers programs aimed at K-12 education and focusing on aerospace technology.

The grant will allow the classes to go on for five years, according to the the district’s project director for magnet grants, Teresa Turner. She said the district will be able to continue the classes itself after those five years. Students from around will be bused to the schools for part of their day for the classes. 

The goal of the program, according to Robin Coletrain, principal of W.A. Perry Middle School, is to get more students interested in STEM-related careers – in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“The idea is that you build that curiosity at the kindergarten, first-grade, second-grade level and you grow it through middle school and then into high school,” Turner said.

The grant comes as South Carolina experiences a “giant deficit” of workers able to work in jobs that call for technological skills, according to Kim Christ, a program director at S.C. Council on Competitiveness, a non-profit seeking to research and support the state’s technological development.

Students will be able to apply for the classes in December. Schools will have until next August to create specific content for these classes. They’ll decide what materials, personnel and other relevant materials they’ll need.

The classes will be hosted at Watkins-Nance Elementary, W.A. Perry Middle School and Columbia High School.

“It’s a great time to have our kids exposed to kids from all different backgrounds and locations,” Coletrain said. “I think that’s good for them to be very inclusive of other people.”

The schools were picked to host the classes because they “had space available to grow” and could fit the new students coming in for the classes, Turner said.

Coletrain said “it just made sense” to have Watkins-Nance and W.A. Perry to host classes since both are within a block of the Challenger center. Both schools already work closely with the center.

The middle school also has a STEM club, and a instructor from the center who teaches an aerospace class.

“Kids from my school come from high-poverty neighborhoods, and it’s good to be able to give them exposure to other type of avenues and careers that they can launch,” Coletrain said.

Across South Carolina, STEM courses are popular MAGNET programs, which usually are open to students districtwide, not just those zoned for a particular school.

The grant comes at a time when fewer workers in South Carolina have the technical skills required for certain jobs, Christ said. Companies’ technological dependency has grown by 254% in South Carolina since 2000, she said.  Jobs that once were less automated now also are calling for more technical skills, Christ said.

“(Technology)’s kind of intricately woven into all business of South Carolina,” Christ said.

Christ said one problem contributing to the deficit of technologically skilled workers is that some people don’t know these jobs or opportunities exist.

“One of my missions in my job is to inform that talent pipeline,” she said. “Hey, these jobs are out there, and they pay really well and they’re highly needed.”

Watkins-Nance Elementary School, located in the Colonial Heights neighborhood

W.A. Perry Middle School, located next to Watkins-Nance Elementary School

Columbia High School, located in the St. Andrews area of Columbia

South Carolina has seen a more than 200% growth in tech firms since 2000. (Graphic by Tyler Fedor)