The Challenger Learning Center of Northwest Indiana is gearing up to celebrate 15 years of inspiring explorers in Northwest Indiana.

Since opening its doors in 1999, the nonprofit space science learning center has flown over 215,000 students on simulated programs designed to engage interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematic (STEM) fields and plant the seeds for career paths in these fields and more.

"We like to say that we were STEM before STEM was cool," said Becky Manis, executive director of the center. "We use space as a natural hook to draw students into the world of exploration."

According to Manis, during Challenger's simulations, the need for strong math, science, teamwork, critical thinking, language and communication skills becomes evident as students play the roles of doctors, life scientists, probe engineers or robotic arm specialists working toward a successful mission to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

The center's official anniversary is February 1, just four days following the 28th anniversary of the loss of the Challenger Shuttle astronauts, to which the center is a living memorial.

Manis explained that there are more than 40 learning centers across the world with the same mission of Challenger Learning Center of Northwest Indiana - to carry on the mission of the Challenger crew and first Teacher in Space, Christa McAuliffe.

"We know that we touch the future and have heard from students who have gone through our program that are now at Purdue studying engineering or at Indiana University studying astronomy," said Manis. "We believe that our programs have lasting effects that can positively alter a student's career path and the workforce development in the local community as well as support a strong, viable future for all of us."

The nonprofit center will be celebrating its 15 years with multiple events throughout 2014. The next such event is being hosted on Friday, February 14, or Valentine's Day. Fly Your Sweetie to the Moon is an adult date night for couples, who will be challenged to engage their problem solving, teamwork and communication skills to complete a mission to the Moon. The mission will be followed by dessert and a Laser light show in the center's planetarium. Cost of the program is $40 per couple and reservations are being taken now.

Challenger Learning Center of Northwest Indiana is located on the campus of Purdue Calumet in Hammond. For more information on the center, or to make a reservation for Fly Your Sweetie to the Moon, contact the center at 219-989-3250.