Technically Better

By Megan Willome

Meet Rob Wolaver of TSTC

Fall is my favorite time!” said Rob Wolaver. He is provost of Texas State Technical College Waco and acting president since July 2014. He admitted he didn’t enjoy August’s chaotic back-to-school season quite as much when he was director of housing, but as someone who has spent his career in higher education — 24 years of it at TSTC — fall is the time of year he most looks forward to. The new semester starts August 31.

TSTC celebrated its 50th anniversary earlier this year. Originally founded as James Connally Technical Institute, TSTC now has 11 satellite campuses statewide. The Waco location remains its flagship.

Since January 2013, when the Wacoan spoke with Dr. Elton Stuckly Jr. — then president, now vice chancellor and chief operating officer — the school has added a helicopter pilot training program and forged a new partnership with Envoy Airlines, better known as the American Eagle brand of American Airlines. Last fall TSTC Waco partnered with Chrysler Group to bring the Mopar Career Automotive Program for Colleges to the campus to train incoming dealership technicians. But the program that has received the most attention recently is welding.

In his inaugural State of the State address Gov. Greg Abbott mentioned TSTC graduate Justin Friend, who is earning $140,000 per year as a welder. Abbott joked, “I’m thinking if this governor thing doesn’t work out, I’m going to TSTC to get a welder’s certificate.” The governor now has his own customized welding hood, a set of welding gloves and an honorary applied science degree, which he received at TSTC’s 50th anniversary gala in April, at which he was the keynote speaker.

Managing Editor Megan Willome met with Rob Wolaver in his office. They were joined by Julie Cromeens, assistant director of communications.

WACOAN: You have been the acting president for about a year?

Wolaver: A little over a year. Last July, as a matter of fact.

WACOAN: When are they going to make you permanent?

Wolaver: Well, it’s kind of a difficult explanation. We have just completed phase 1 of a total organizational restructure, which involves going from four separately accredited colleges to one accreditation for all 11 locations.

WACOAN: Can you explain what single accreditation means?

Wolaver: Here’s a little history on that.

Waco is the flagship campus. We were the first location, celebrating our 50th anniversary back on April 22, in fact, was our birthday. Waco was the first campus to come online and has served as the flagship campus of the system since that time.

Over the course of the next 20 years, locations, campuses, were added next in Harlingen, next was Amarillo — but Amarillo’s not part of the system anymore — next was Sweeetwater, and then the fourth location [Marshall], which started as a satellite campus of Waco, got its accreditation and full designation from the Department of Education as a stand-alone campus.

So we had four campuses, which we’re calling our legacy campuses — Waco, Harlingen, Sweetwater and Marshall. Four separate accreditations through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges — that’s who our accrediting agency is.

So we’ve spent this past year going through what’s called a ‘substantive change process’ where we have asked them to merge our four institutions that are separately accredited into one singular accredited college. Each of the four locations — we’ve also got off-site teaching locations of those — so there are 11 sites across the state. The others of those are connected to one of the four accredited colleges. So under single accreditation, all of those locations will be under the same accreditation. Which Waco will be designated as the main campus.

WACOAN: And what will that do for TSTC Waco?

Wolaver: What it does for the college as a whole is it provides us the opportunity to maximize on scales of efficiencies across the state. There are companies who do this globally, all over the world. There are a lot of things that we do that we did four different times that we can do one time.

Our customers, our consumers, are the students and the industries of the state of Texas, but they really won’t see any difference to that. To them, they’re still going to get the same product that they’ve always received. It will allow us — when you flip the switch it didn’t just happen — to grow the organization in a way that we’re much more efficient with the operations of things. That was the driving factor behind doing that. Our board challenged the chancellor a little over a year ago with coming up with a way to continue to meet the needs of the industries of the state of Texas and to do that in a more efficient, cost-effective way. And this is the first step in doing that.

To most people, the communities where we have campuses, to students who come to us, to industry and employers who recruit and hire our talent, you should see no change. It should not change anything for the people that we serve, and it just allows us a method to be a little more efficient.

We just received approval from our accrediting agency on July 11 that they approved the merger. The second part of that is now we have a follow-up reporting piece that goes to them in November, and then we’ll have a site visit in the early part of next year, likely in January. That’s part of their whole process.

With that, in answer to your original question, there are a lot of things within the organization, operationally, that will continue to change in terms of internal structures. What’s facing forward really should be transparent to the communities where we live and the folks that we serve. We haven’t finished all of those pieces yet. It’s going to take us a while to get all of those pieces, the structure, the operational structure. We’ve still got a ways to go with that. It’s a work in process.

WACOAN: I’d like to talk about the commercials that are on the website, TSTC.edu, and available on your YouTube channel, the series ‘Does the world need another … ?’

Cromeens: They were done through the marketing and communications department. What did you think of them?

WACOAN: I thought they were such a concise and catchy way to explain TSTC.

Wolaver: I know that was the intent.

Cromeens: As part of coming together statewide, all 11 locations, it gave us the opportunity to revamp because one of the things we had done separately is four separate marketing [departments].

Wolaver: That’s one of the scales of efficiencies that makes sense.

Cromeens: It made sense for us to join together marketing-wise and come up with a single brand, a single message, statewide — because we are a statewide institution — and build on that. And we have. You’re starting to see the fruits of that: a new website, new commercials for fall registration. There are a lot of other things. We’re revamping brochures, all that kind of stuff. The look and feel, our personality — we’re different.

We’re different from other colleges, and we want to tell people that. We’re relatable. We’re here. We’re dependable. We’re affordable. We’re not for everybody — we know that. But we’re for a lot of people.

So we’re getting the word out, trying to reach a lot of people, going with a new look and feel, basically. There will be radio commercials as well.

Wolaver: That way they’re consistent across all the markets across the state.

Cromeens: As far as look and feel, we have a different program mix [here in Waco]. One of the things the single accreditation lets us do is — what’s important to industry here —

Wolaver: Could be different somewhere else.

Cromeens: Maybe in Harlingen, for example. It’s more oil and gas there. Here it may be more manufacturing and aerospace.

Wolaver: Obviously, there are programs we have at every location that serve needs everywhere. But there are some that we don’t. For instance, the campus in the Valley, in Harlingen, has some allied health programs that we don’t have here [in Waco]. We’re not going to have here — [McLennan Community College] does that. They do a great job at it, so there’s no need for us to do that here.

There are some nuances for every one of the locations for specific industry needs that are in that location, although we all serve the industry statewide. But there’s local needs that need to be met too.

Cromeens: So the marketing is still marketing locally but more of a statewide brand, the look and feel that you’re going to see statewide.

WACOAN: TSTC is the only college in Texas where your funding model is dependent upon student employment outcomes. How does that work?

Wolaver: I’m going to give you the simple version because the details of it, quite honestly, are not simple. In fact, I had one of our former board members catch me at Waco Business League yesterday. He says, ‘So tell me exactly how does this work?’ I said, ‘I’m gonna give you the Dairy Queen version.’

WACOAN: The Dairy Queen version is fine with me.

Wolaver: We are the only [college] in the state and one of only a few in the nation that have moved that direction.

Historically, the way the other state institutions receive their financial support from the state is driven by a formula, and that formula is based on the number of contact hours, that is the number of hours each student is enrolled in class per week. And that drives the formula that says based on this, this is how much state financial support this institution gets.

By us moving away from that, what it does is really unbridles us from some traditional sort of educational practices that don’t necessarily mesh with what our institutional mission is. Our institutional mission is to get folks in, identify what the need of the industry is and train those students with those essential high-technical career skills that they can become employable as quick as possible. Under the old sort of paradigm, it really was not to folks’ advantage to try to hurry that process up any. And that was kind of counterintuitive to what our mission is.

So the new funding formula is still a formula — this is a little more than the Dairy Queen version — but rather than the metric of how many students are enrolled in how many hours, the metric that drives our return value funding formula is how much is that student, that graduate that we place, worth to the economy of the state of Texas?

What happened this time, what the Legislative Budget Board and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board [both boards of the Texas Legislature] basically said was, ‘We’re going to work from a simple platform and try to get more sophisticated over the next few years.’ So rather than looking at each individual industry and employment code and having variable metrics that drive our [funding], they put all that together and took an aggregate. And the difference between what minimum wage is and that aggregate of all of our graduates is, is the metric that is used to drive the state reimbursement that we get for our activity.

That’s the simple version. If it takes us longer to get a student ready for that, or if it takes us shorter to get a student graduated, supported and placed, the support that we get from the state for doing that will be the same.

WACOAN: Am I correct that some of your programs are on this system and you’re working toward them all going that direction?

Wolaver: No. We completely went to that model September 1, 2014. This year’s biennial funding is wholly based on that new return value formula. It’s a formula — it’s just there’s different metrics that drive the formula from the traditional contact hour reimbursement system. This is much better for us.

Now the question [my friend] asked me yesterday, he said, ‘What do the community colleges think about that?’ My guess is that for their workforce development programs, they’re going to be happy to convert to the same system. It works for us. It works great for us, but it probably isn’t going to work for every educational institution. The metrics that drive that are easier to measure than traditional academic, baccalaureate, post-graduate programs. It’s easier to track our metric than it is the other. It’s not going to fit for every sort of institution. It fits well for us. The actual formula and the way the number gets spit out is much more complicated than I made it. I simplified it.

The ultimate goal is for us to get to the point where the formula has variable metrics, so that if a certain occupation, our graduate that we place, contributes to the economy at a higher level, then we get a higher level of reimbursement for that student. We’re not there yet. The coordinating board said, ‘Let’s start from a simple platform and work our way to a more sophisticated platform as we work through that.’

WACOAN: One of those programs that might be contributing at that higher level would be the welding program.

Wolaver: We have a number that would contribute at a higher level — welding, our manufacturing and engineering program, our machinists, our electronics engineers, our instrumentation and robotics graduates, our power line distribution graduates.

You say welding. Did you get a chance to see the best advertising we never paid for?

WACOAN: You’re talking about Gov. Abbott’s mention of the welding graduate in his speech?

Wolaver: We’ve had two opportunities in the last six months that I tell people is the best advertising we never paid for. One was welding graduate Justin Friend.

Cromeens: You know where [the governor] got that? It was a story the marketing department did with the Wall Street Journal [‘The $140,000-a-Year Welding Job’ by James R. Hagerty, January 7, 2015].

Wolaver: Justin graduated in 2013. His parents are both Ph.D. professors. [TSTC] was a good fit for him. It’s hard for most of the general public — this is one of the stories [that addresses] the historical prejudice we have against traditional vocational programs, which really don’t exist anymore. There’s still a historical bias. If I just went and told somebody that one of our welders can go make $140,000 a year, they’re like, ‘No, they can’t.’ Yeah, they can!

The other story that ran recently was a Reuters story on one of our graduates [Steven Polasck] that was an instrumentation electronics graduate, went to work for Valero. He’s early 20s. He’s working in a refinery, running the power plant, making $80,000 per year. [Editor’s note: The column, ‘Two-Year Degrees Can Really Pay Off’ by Liz Weston, was published April 20, 2015.]

Cromeens: It also ran in Time magazine’s Money magazine [under the headline ‘When A Two-Year College Degree Pays Off,’ April 21, 2015.]

Wolaver: The disclaimer on the bottom of that: These results not necessarily typical. Not all of our welders are going to make $140,000 a year. But it is because some of them may choose a different lifestyle. Some of them may not want to work in the energy sector. Some may want to work in manufacturing. Some of them may not want to go to the Gulf Coast — some may want to stay at home.

There’s absolutely no doubt that there is significant demand everywhere for highly skilled welders and welding inspectors, and they can write their ticket on how much they want to make. It all depends on how much they want to work and where they want to work.

WACOAN: What kind of student are you looking for?

Wolaver: We are looking — I can’t throw out a generic on that because it depends on what program they want to go into.

There are math, science and reading skills that are necessary for every program we have out here. Most of which equal those required for baccalaureate programs. We have a different method to get those ready. We have a large number of our students that it takes a little longer. Some of our students, their math and their reading level, especially math, are not to the level that they need to be, so we have to do a little extra work to get ‘em there.

But what we’re looking for in general is a student who has a strong desire to progress from the initial introduction to us to a credential in placement, and [we’re looking for] those that have strong tactile skills — because everything that we do is very hands-on — but also very strong problem-solving skills and high math and reading capability. When I say that, I don’t mean current ability but capability. Because we can get them there.

[Students will say,] ‘I’m terrible at math. I can’t do math,’ and they’re in our mechanical engineering program, and they’re in the computerized numeric control class, and they’re learning how to program machines, to run three-axis machines, milling machines. They’re doing right-angle trig.

I tell you one thing I’ll brag about. We treat our academics a little bit differently than a traditional institution because our academics are support courses for our programs. It’s a challenge sometimes to get those students who either don’t have a strong math background — doesn’t mean they don’t have a strong math capability — and who are scared of it and get them the skills that they need.

So our math department, it was a grant from the [Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board], it’s called S-3, this last year developed a pilot project. They’re taking students who are at college algebra level, students who are at the intro to college algebra level — two different courses — and they’ve created a hybrid course. These students who tested at two different levels of mathematics are in the same class together. And it’s highly interactive. It’s high touch. They work in teams. There’s computer-driven assignments. They’re encouraged to draw on the table, draw on the wall, do whatever you have to do to figure out the problem. They’re encouraged to work off of each other — that’s no longer seen as cheating. The data’s not real solid because we’ve only been doing this for a year, but those students who take the S-3 style of class are persisting and completing at a higher rate than the others. And we have students fighting to get into those slots.

The other thing the instructor tells me that is interesting is oftentimes the student who’s the intro to algebra student, they find they’re the ones doing the tutoring to the college algebra student. So they learn from one another. We’ve been up for a couple of national awards for that project. Once we get a couple of years of data, we’ll certainly use that to try and do improvements all across [the campus]. We’ve got some academic faculty doing a good job of being creative and being able to adapt nontraditional teaching methods to get our students the math capabilities that they need to be a machinist or to be an instrumentation technician or, quite honestly, to be a welder.

I tell you what I had a welding faculty member tell me. It was a project that involved several angles, and we were talking about getting the layout for the measurement of all those angles. Here’s what he said: ‘If you just give me height and the width, I’ll use the Pythagorean theorem to figure out what those angles are. You don’t need to measure all of that — just give me these two points of data. I’ll use the theorem to come up with the angles.’
Even welding students, which a lot of people have the mindset that that is a traditional vocational program, the welding students we produce, which are going into construction in the energy sector and the manufacturing sector, have to have a high level of math and engineering capabilities. Because if they’re in the field, working on a pipeline, there’s a lot of troubleshooting that has to take place. And sometimes those blueprints, if somebody got off 1/8 of an inch, 4 miles up, somehow now we’re way off, and I gotta figure out how do we fix this?

Even programs that people may believe or have the impression are low math, frankly, are not.

WACOAN: How did you get on the governor’s radar to be in his State of the State speech?

Wolaver: Julie may know that answer better for sure, but I’m pretty sure that it’s between the combination of our efforts and our presence in Austin and the Wall Street Journal article. He read the Wall Street Journal article. That’s how he knew of Justin Friend.

WACOAN: And then is that how he came to be your keynote speaker at the 50th anniversary gala?

Wolaver: It is. We invited him as a result of his support. We’d started building some relationships even before he was elected. He knew who we were. He knew what we did. He understands and values our contribution to economy of the state of Texas. I wasn’t involved in that process, but I don’t think that convincing him to come, it was not a hard sell at all. He definitely sees the value in the work that we do and what our graduates contribute to the economy. And did an absolute knock-out job at the 50th.

Cromeens: He was wonderful!

Wolaver: I was so impressed. I mean, I can talk and ramble, but he did 30 minutes of what appeared to me to be a well-written, well-rehearsed, knowledgeable speech. He didn’t have a note. He didn’t have a card. There wasn’t a teleprompter. He did all of that right out of his noggin.

Cromeens: We surprised [the governor] because we had Justin Friend and his parents there, and he came on stage and presented the governor with an honorary welding degree from TSTC.

Wolaver: Yes, the governor now has an honorary associate of applied science degree in welding from TSTC Waco, framed, and I hope it’s on his wall in his office. He also has a customized welding hood and a set of welding gloves. In fact, he joked that night that if this governor thing didn’t work out, he might take a look at welding.

WACOAN: I read that quote.

And you’ve also received two telecommunications scholarships, one for a male and one for a female student, from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Wolaver: Yep, he’s committed scholarship money, he and his wife.

Cromeens: He spoke that night.

Wolaver: While that was great — it was absolutely great to have the governor and the lieutenant governor and the former comptroller Susan Combs as emcee — there was a room full of people that night from industry that were it not for that support that we get not just for a 50th anniversary gala but that we get every day of the week, we would not be able to do what we do. The industry support for what we have done for the last 50 years is phenomenal. I don’t want to overlook the fact that at the gala that night, while it was fabulous that we had those three people there, there was a room of about 600 people that truly represented business and industry from the state of Texas that not only supported us by coming and buying a table at the gala. They support us every single day by gifts and donations. The majority of the folks in the audience that night were business and industry representatives. They were the ones that have been loyal to us for 50 years.

WACOAN: In terms of the 50th anniversary, what do you think the founders of the James Connally Technical Institute would think of where TSTC is today?

Wolaver: I can tell you what one of them thinks because he’s still living. I saw him yesterday. He is the absolute — he just grins from ear to ear. Murray Watson Jr. was the state senator from Waco at the time that carried the legislation that created James Connally Technical Institute. He’s still a strong supporter of the institution. He is at everything we do. He supports us financially. He supports us politically. He’s very proud of TSTC.

We have two buildings on this campus named after he and his lovely wife, Greta. We were in desperate need of a new culinary arts center years ago, and Senator Watson found a way to see to it that we were able to construct a brand-new facility that now bears the name of his lovely bride [Greta W. Watson Culinary Arts Center]. [Editor’s note: The other building is the Murray Watson Jr. Student Recreation Center.]

We will be honoring him as part of our 50th celebration. He received the Central Texas Founders Award from the [TSTC] Foundation. We awarded that to him at the gala. We awarded four of those [one for each of the four legacy campuses]. These were an inaugural award that our foundation awarded to honor excellence in commitment over the last 50 years. We’re also going to be honoring him at our commencement in the next few weeks.

WACOAN: When our writer Kevin Tankersley interviewed Dr. Elton Stuckly in January 2013, they talked about new construction. What have you built since then? I saw something about a Veterans Center?

Wolaver: The Veterans Center is actually not a building. The Veterans Center is a program. We received a year ago, from the governor’s office, we received start-up funds through a Wagner-Peyser grant that allowed us to expand our capacity at Waco to better serve our veterans. We have a large population of veterans, both those that we know are veterans because they’re receiving benefits and those that we don’t know because they may not be receiving benefits. About a year ago we were just north of 500 veterans, students that we had, and so we were trying to figure out a better way to serve those beyond just processing their benefits for them, whether it be some career coaching, whether it be some intense counseling, whether it be advanced and different placement opportunities specifically for them, recruiting of employers that were interested in making veteran employment a priority. The start-up money let us add four full-time positions to our office, to provide a full-service support center for our veterans students. Obviously, we’re not going to try to duplicate things. There are great services in the Waco community that are available to our students, so we’re not trying to duplicate that, but we are trying to make sure we’ve got a better avenue to get those students to those services. Now we have staff that can work with those services and know what they are and work directly with our students so if we’re not providing it, we can point them to the place in the community that is.

WACOAN: So tell me then about construction after the culinary center.

Wolaver: Aerospace Center, the Col. James Connally Center opened [in July 2012]. That allowed us to take all of our aviation-related programs, which had been housed in mostly old Air Force buildings spread out across campus. So it allowed us to take our aviation maintenance, aircraft pilot training, avionics and the two new programs which we added, which were air traffic control and air traffic dispatch, and house them all in one building together as well as a creating a terminal area — this is a general aviation airport — and we also built a new control tower.

WACOAN: In that previous interview with Dr. Stuckly, he mentioned that TSTC was updating its housing. Where are you in that process?

Wolaver: We have completed the initial phase of that, which was a bond issue. We renovated 150 or so structures. Most were multifamily units, duplexes, because those were our most popular units. We took those completely down to studs and redid them so that they were more energy efficient, obviously, more aesthetically pleasing on the outside and on the inside. That project has been completed for a year and a half, two years now. They’re fully occupied.

Since that time we’ve continued — not as part of a bond project but as part of reinvestment of our own auxiliary revenues — we’ve continued to do exterior upgrades. In fact, we’re trying to do 30 houses a year. Those that are along Airbase Road, which comes in the back side of campus, we’ve done probably 75 percent of Vance [Avenue], and we’ve done 10 or 12 houses at the back entrance. There is a planned project for this next year to carry that all the way up to the main campus. That first was a huge $8 million bond project. Since then we’re continuing to reinvest, and we’re having to take it in smaller bites. We’re reinvesting our rental revenues back into the assets.

WACOAN: You’ve been at TSTC for more than 20 years, correct?

Wolaver: I hit the 24-year mark on June 29 of this year.

WACOAN: Tell me about your career path.

Wolaver: My career path has been all over the page. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. I intended to be a law enforcement officer. I decided at the time that I guess I wasn’t ready to grow up yet, so I went back to graduate school and was working at a manufacturing plant who is now one of TSTC’s huge employers of our graduates. I did not even know it at the time. I worked for FMC Technologies in Stephenville, Texas.

I was working my way through graduate school and had been involved as a student in student leadership programs. I was in a Greek fraternity, developed relationships. It was summer, about this time of year, and it was hot. I was going to work at 4 a.m. and getting off work and going to school till 10 at night. I had a roommate who was working on summer orientation programs, and he said, ‘The dean wants you to call him.’ I said, ‘What for?’ And he said, ‘He just told me he wants you to call him.’ So I called him the next day and he said, ‘I’ve got a graduate assistant position open, if you’re interested.’ I asked, ‘How much does it pay?’ and it was 15 cents more an hour than I was making at FMC. I said, ‘I will turn in my two weeks notice today. Hold me a spot.’

WACOAN: And was this at Tarleton State University?

Wolaver: This was at Tarleton.

I started out working in the dean of students office, doing peer advising programs and summer orientations, and I found out that you could make a living working with students and have a really good time. So that’s how I ended up in higher education. That was never my goal. That was never my intention. Life has a way of — your path and God’s path are not always the same. Thank goodness that those opportunities availed themselves to me.

I tell people all the time that I have been extremely fortunate. Both at Tarleton and at TSTC I have been afforded opportunities that I probably didn’t deserve. When I was very young and early in my career, people took some chances on me, and I’m ever grateful that they did.

I came to TSTC in 1992 looking for professional growth, looking for some new opportunities. Quite frankly, I did not know a lot about TSTC before I got here. And I tell people today that if I knew in 1984, when I entered as a freshman at Tarleton State University, what I know today, you would be interviewing somebody different today because I wouldn’t be here. Because I would’ve come to TSTC, and I would be out somewhere else.

My father is a football coach, so I know nothing other than team. I learned at a very young age that there is no ‘I’ in team. Since coming to TSTC, I have served a bunch of different roles. That’s kind of my style. I guess I’m a servant leader. I’m happy to serve wherever.

I’ve been given the opportunity, Dr. Stuckly, when he was the president, gave me the opportunity to have some experience outside of student development. The majority of all of my experience has been on the student development side of the house, whether that’s admissions and records, housing, financial aid, disability services, student conduct officer. There was some need in part of the instructional area of the college that I didn’t know anything about. He said, ‘That’s OK. You’re a quick study. You can figure it out.’ I got the opportunity to work on the workforce development and training side, where I got to work with companies and develop some customized training programs. I’m thankful I got that opportunity. I’ve been given an awful lot of opportunities throughout my career that not necessarily was I looking for. They appeared, and I’m one of those that when someone asks you to serve, you do. I’ve been here long enough now, I think I’m planning on staying.

When I was hired here, Dr. Bob Kinney, he was the VP for student services — Bob and I are still in Lions Club, and we’re good friends — he asked me then in the interview, ‘How long do you plan on staying here?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what. I’ll commit to five years. After that we can talk about it.’ Twenty-four years later, I guess — [Laughter.] This is absolute the funnest place in the world to work!

I’m a hands-on gadget guy. I’m a woodsmith by hobby. I build furniture. If you look at the faculty that we have, the breadth and scope of all kinds of knowledge, it’s just like a toy box. You’ve got people here that can fly fighter jets. You’ve got people that know how to work with 14 kilovolt high voltage electricity. You’ve got people running nuclear power plants. I have more fun out here. I did not know I was going to have this much fun 24 years ago. I really didn’t.

WACOAN: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Wolaver: I’d like to put a plug in for the Challenger Learning Center. Following the Challenger [space shuttle] explosion, the families of those survivors of the astronauts created a foundation to build these centers to create interest among young students in science, technology, engineering, math. Most of which are at colleges, but some are at public libraries. We have the Challenger Learning Center at our campus in Harlingen. There was one in Kansas that got decommissioned two years ago, so we bought the rights to it. We want to bring that to Waco, Texas.

We have the facility ready to go. We are seeking external private funding that’s going to be necessary for renovation and startup of that facility. I’ve talked with Region 12, and I’ve talked with area superintendents, and they’re excited about having that opportunity exposed from elementary schools through high school kids. They get the opportunity to fly a simulated space mission.

We basically build a replica of the shuttle, of the space center and of mission control. It’s not just a field trip for [the students]. It satisfies some of the education requirements that public schools are required to do. Those students come in, and they’re assigned missions that are all driven by science, technology and math. Some work in the control center, some work in the space station, and then they switch. It’s a full day experience for those students.

We’re in the fundraising stage right now to identify either foundation or private dollars that will help us remodel the facility. We’ve got the shell space ready to go. We’ve just got to find the funds to renovate it and then buy the equipment to put in it to make the learning center.

We’re excited to be able to open, hopefully, by this time next summer, TSTC Waco Challenger Learning Center.

Cromeens: There are more than 40 worldwide because they’re in Canada, the United Kingdom and South Korea.

Wolaver: And hopefully one of those over 40 will be in Waco, Texas.

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