Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Joel Rodeback, 7, reads about historic space events at the Christa McAuliffe Space Education Center.

PLEASANT GROVE — A little more than 15 years ago, a young teacher persuaded his principal and bosses at the Alpine School District to sign off on a crazy idea to promote an interest in learning at Central Elementary in Pleasant Grove by building a rocket ship in the computer room.

Monday night, a few hundred volunteers, citizens and former students gathered to thank that teacher, Victor Williamson, and celebrate the 15th anniversary of his creation, the Christa McAuliffe Space Education Center.

In an open house prior to the program, excited former students of all ages led friends and family through the mock spacecraft in the center, pointing out their former work stations and recounting old war stories. After that, Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert joined dignitaries from the district to honor Williamson and praise the center.

And as he watched former students file in, some of them now college graduates, Williamson said the best thing about the program is the way it inspires students.

"It's seeing the kids get really excited about learning, really excited about space, and then hearing positive feedback from their parents," he said.

In the space center, students use one of five mock ships to simulate learning experiences. Space and science are two of the focal points, but Williamson said he's aware that not every student will respond to those, and so he strives to incorporate history and the humanities to make the experience more well-rounded.

"Last year, for example, we ran a mission on slavery and the Underground Railroad," he said. "In a classroom, I really can't re-create that kind of environment, with the North and the South. But I can throw (students) in a ship and take them to deep space, where they can meet a race who is going through what we went through in our history."

Students from schools around the Alpine School District make field trips to the center, usually in fifth or sixth grade, for a four-hour experience. Students from other school districts are invited to come when there is room, and Williamson conducts space camps during June and July.

All told, the center reaches an estimated 16,000 students each year, Williamson said. The experience touches some students so deeply, they come back as the volunteers that are the lifeblood of the center.

"It's just kind of like a different experience," said 15-year-old Brady Lystrup of Alpine, who works at the center. "There's just nothing else like it."

Another 15-year-old, Collin Jensen of Orem, said the center's all-inclusive nature is what brought him back as a volunteer.

"I liked being able to have a real job and be a part of a group," he said. "You're not just some kind of lackey, you have a job and are part of the team."

Parents, meanwhile, praise the center's ability to teach students responsibility and teamwork and thanked Williamson for his dedication.

"(Williamson) really shares the whole vision with the kids," said Andrea Jensen, Collin's mother. "He really communicates with them . . . and makes them get involved and have a sense of ownership in the program."

Williamson, however, gives credit to the students, who design and run the simulations.

"It's students creating learning programs for fellow students," he said. "It gives them a great experience."

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