Lauren Tanner

PAYSON — Lauren Tanner has been to the Hill Aerospace Museum and the Clark Planetarium so many times she knows the staff personally. She's spent so many sleepless nights on simulated missions at the Christa McAuliffe Space Education Center she's staked out a bunk bed of her own.

"Twenty-two years of teaching after-school science will do that to you," she said.

The Payson schoolteacher has spent every Thursday afternoon since she began her career lugging students on field trips and teaching hands-on science lessons. She is scheduled to retire from her official position as a fourth-grade teacher at Barnett Elementary this spring but said she plans to continue volunteering as an after-hours science teacher.

"I don't think I could quit teaching completely," she said. "I love being with the children. I love to see the excitement on their faces when they discover a new concept."

Until recently, when she discovered that the Utah Aerospace Education Foundation awards educational grants, she funded the project out of her own "open purse." She even provided "scholarships" for children who couldn't afford to pay the club's minimal fees.

Tanner, whose two biggest passions are space and children, hardly noticed the extra hours of unpaid work, though. She couldn't think of anything she'd like to do better — except maybe teach aboard a space shuttle. Her health is too poor to support a career in that.

"I like to play with the kids," she said. "It's just a big game. I'm a kid at heart."

Charlotte Hamaker, whose 11-year-old son has been a part of Tanner's science club for three years, said the teacher makes learning fun for the children.

"She puts her heart and soul into her science," she said.

But Tanner teaches more than just curriculum, Hamaker said. She said her son has learned tolerance and respect under Tanner's tutelage.

"My son has always been an outsider, but in this program he's been able to find friends and be accepted for himself," she said. "She drills it into them: Be kind and gentle."

Activities during Tanner's class range from building working rockets to launching hot air balloons. Subject matter fluctuates from the history of flight to astronomy, although Tanner tries to focus on one specific topic each semester.

"I believe kids learn best by getting their hands dirty," Tanner said.

Field trips are the teacher's favorite activity. If she had the resources, she said, she'd aspire to be like the eccentric Ms. Frizzle, from Scholastic's "The Magic School Bus," who takes children on field trips to crazy places like the inside of the Earth and the ocean floor.

On a recent Thursday, Tanner took all 25 of her students on an afternoon adventure to the Christa McAuliffe Space Education Center in Pleasant Grove.

The center's founder, Victor Williamson, said Tanner was one of the first to stop by when the center opened in 1990. The field trip has been an annual tradition since.

"She's a familiar face around here," he said.

The 62-year-old schoolteacher could hardly disguise her excitement as her fifth- and sixth-graders geared up to board the mock space shuttle, the Voyager, which is designed to simulate a ride on a "Star Trek" ship.

Their mission was to rescue several hundred refugees from a foreign planet without getting blown up by aliens.

Each child punched away at a computer screen. Some were in charge of making sure the ship had sufficient power. Others were in charge of navigation.

"Advance to warp speed nine," commanded 11-year-old Travis Peterson, who served as the ship's captain during the simulation. "If the friendly ship is destroyed, we must save the refugees on our own."

Tanner beamed proudly from her corner near the back of the ship. She was careful to stay quiet and out of the way.

"Otherwise it would ruin the atmosphere," she said.

She's always careful to maintain a good learning environment.

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