Staff

Rebecca Manis, Executive Director

Rebecca graduated from Indiana University with a degree in Elementary Education. She taught middle school science and language arts, until she joined the Challenger Learning Center as its Lead Flight Director when the center opened in February of 1999. Working alongside the center’s founding director, Lisa Austgen, she developed a curriculum for the mission simulations and worked to create a unique experience for all who visited the center. While working on her Masters in Education through Purdue University Calumet, Rebecca became a member of the Network Training Consultant team for Challenger’s national headquarters and traveled throughout the United States assisting in the opening of centers and training new Flight Directors. After a brief hiatus at Jane Ball Elementary School in Cedar Lake, she returned to the learning center in 2011 as the Executive Director, where she is pleased to be working with a dedicated staff and Board of Directors who are all focused on helping teachers inspire and engage students in the sciences, engineering fields and beyond.


Karen Cearing, Business Manager

Karen was born in South Chicago Heights, Illinois, but, has lived in Northwest Indiana since the 6th grade. Karen’s family currently resides in Dyer, Indiana. Karen graduated from Lake Central High school in St. John, Indiana and also attended Purdue University Northwest, taking accounting classes to further her career.  The majority of her professional career has been spent working for local CPA firms where she specialized in non-for-profit and small business accounting. After spending the last two years working for the Crossroads Regional Chamber of Commerce in Merrillville, Indiana, as their Marketing Director, Karen was happy to accept the Business Manager position at Challenger Learning Center. Karen and her husband are very proud of their two beautiful daughters, one who is a teacher and one who attends Indiana University. 


Emma Rose, Office Assistant

Emma is a senior at Purdue University Northwest and works part time as an administrative assistant at the Challenger Learning Center.  She has lived in northwest Indiana her entire life and graduated from Lake Central High School in 2014.  Outside of the Challenger Center, Emma is a full time student majoring in Human Development and Family studies with minors in Psychology and Sociology.  She is also the Vice President of Media for the Purdue Northwest Honors College.  Emma has assisted with birthday parties, summer camps and planning multiple fundraising events during her time at Challenger, and she is extremely happy to be a part of the CLC team!


Ann Vassar, Formal Programs Coordinator/Flight DIrector 

Commander Ann graduated from Purdue University Northwest with a degree in Elementary Education. She has always had a great interest in science and strived to share that interest with her students in the classroom. She is proud to be a part of the team at the Challenger Learning Center of Northwest Indiana and loves seeing the excitement that the missions create with students. When she is not launching rockets or flying a mission, Commander Ann enjoys spending time with her husband, children, family and friends. She also enjoys walking, reading, and relaxing with a good movie.


Janean Gross, Early Learning Program Coordinator/Flight Director

Janean graduated from Indiana University Northwest in 2012 with a degree in Elementary & Special Education. She worked with children on the autism spectrum from  2009-2016 conducting 1:1 ABA therapy. Her passion is educating children and making a positive impact on their day. She was intrigued by the Challenger Center because of the theatrical and interactive methods of engaging students in applying what they are learning in the classroom to a job-like experience. She is also fascinated by how excited and proud children of all abilities become when working hands-on in an atmosphere where they are learning but also having a ton of fun! Janean will be focusing on updating & implementing programs for early learners, refreshing our curriculum and taking the role of being a flight director to work directly with children of all ages. She is thrilled to join our team and sees a star bright future with us at the Challenger Center. 


Lara Bates, Community Relations Specialist/Flight Director

Lara graduated from Indiana University in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in Public Affairs. For nearly a decade, she served as the Environmental Education and Media Specialist for Lake County’s Solid Waste District. Students referred to her as “The Worm Lady” as she turned their classrooms into a compost heap of exploration. Shortly after completing her master’s degree in Public Management, Lara was presented with an opportunity to work on an unprecedented project to create a Heritage Area for the Calumet region. As the Calumet Heritage Communications Specialist for The Field Museum of Natural History, she devoted two years working towards the designation of the proposed Calumet National Heritage Area, which is still under review through the National Park Service. Lara is over-the-moon to be a part of the Challenger Learning Center team and enjoys each day she gets to blast-off into a voyage of discovery with students that visit the center. When she’s not in space, her favorite past times include traveling with her husband to see their favorite band Phish, spending time with family and relaxing in nature while bird watching. Although Lara doesn’t have any human children at this time, she is a loving mother to her 10-year-old English Bulldog named Icculus.


Greg Karas, Flight Director

Commander Greg earned his Bachelors from Valparaiso University in 1976 and his Masters from Indiana University in 1986. For 37 years he served as a fourth-grade teacher in Valparaiso. Through coaching, summer school, Student Council and the Kiwanis K-Kids program, he was fortunate to work with students at every grade level (K-12) during his teaching career. He has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and can vividly remember watching the televised flights of the Mercury astronauts in the basement of Elliott school in Munster when he was a student there. In the 1980s he applied for NASA’s Teacher in Space program and was a semi finalist for the state of Indiana. Greg is the past president and charter member of the Sunrise Kiwanis Club of Valparaiso. He has served on the board of the United Way agency Family House for 25 years. (Family House helps children who have been victims of abuse and neglect.)

Greg’s wife Liz is a Registered Nurse at Porter Regional Hospital. They have two married children named Nick and Natalie and two beautiful granddaughters named Olivia and Miriam, plus amazing twin grandsons, Benny and Lando. Greg loves to read, write, hike at the Indiana Dunes, and take long bike rides on the trails in Porter County. Commander Greg is proud and happy to guide kids at this wonderful STEM institution, because he knows it provides them with a unique and powerful learning experience.


Jeanie Shanks, Flight Director

Commander Jeanie graduated from Purdue University with a Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering. After working 11 years in several engineering and laboratory positions at GE Plastics, Jeanie left engineering to raise two very science-minded boys. Through home science projects, volunteering at school, 4H, Cub Scouts and Science Olympiad, Jeanie realized that she loved doing hands-on work with children while inspiring them to get excited about science and engineering. She specifically remembers accompanying her sons’ classes to the Challenger Center and being awed by the dynamic learning and hands-on activities here. She started volunteering at Challenger in 2011, and was thrilled to start the job of part-time Flight Director in 2014!

When Jeanie is not at the Challenger Center, she works part-time as an analyst in an environmental testing laboratory. Outside of work she enjoys traveling to visit family, hiking, skiing, anything to do with space travel and astronomy, home decorating projects and reading.      


Jeff Kinkaid, Flight Director

Commander Jeff graduated from Indiana State University with a degree in business education. He continued on to earn a Masters degree from Indiana University Northwest. His career involved teaching a variety of courses at the high school level including accounting, business law, introduction to careers, marketing, and personal finance. Commander Jeff appreciates the fact that skills such as teamwork, communication, and problem solving are important in business, and he strives to incorporate these into each of his missions. Jeff enjoys working with young people and encourages them to continue their exploration of STEM courses as they continue their education. Commander Jeff is very excited to be part of the Challenger Learning Center team! He remembers the Mercury space flights and was a teenager during the Apollo missions. Consequently, he is fond of the Mission to the Moon simulation.

Retiring from education after 34 years of classroom experience, Commander Jeff enjoys spending his free time traveling with his wife Kim and visiting his daughter Lindsay and her family in Wisconsin.


Sarah Janiga, Flight Director

Sarah first visited the Challenger Learning Center as a young astronaut-in-training for Indiana Space Adventure Camp. She returned with her class from Kenwood Elementary School. Those experiences taught her to work hard and dream big; Sarah’s dream... was to become a CLC Flight Director. Her love for exploration allowed her to soar to new heights in Muncie, Indiana where she studied communications, marketing, and management at Ball State University. During this time, she simultaneously completed the Disney College Program at Disney World in Florida. After graduating with her Bachelors Degree (BGS) in 2013, Sarah moved back to the Sunshine State to gain additional experience. Her most recent role was with the Disney Internships & Programs College and International Education Team working at the Disney Learning Center. Upon completion of that internship, Sarah returned to Chicagoland to be closer to her family.

In 2015 Sarah was thrilled to join the unique Challenger crew in her dream job as a Flight Director. Commander Sarah is especially enthusiastic about the Earth Odyssey mission and STEM On-the-Go Arctic Assistance Program because of her firm beliefs in environmental sustainability and wildlife conservation. Because of this, she also works seasonally as a Marketing Events Assistant for the Chicago Zoological Society. She is currently seeking her Master of Arts in Teaching Biological Sciences Degree (MAT) as part of Miami University's Advanced Inquiry Program. In her free time, Sarah enjoys playing with her pets, traveling with her family, Wish Granting for Make-A-Wish Illinois and volunteering with the Coffee Creek Watershed Preserve as an Indiana Master Naturalist. These interests and qualifications help Commander Sarah strive to inspire creativity and innovation among guests of all ages. 


Susan Saarela, Flight Director

Commander Susan graduated from Purdue University with a Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering. She continued on to earn a Master's degree in Mechanical Engineering from University of California, Berkeley. Susan spent 11 years working for Boeing and Northrop Grumman designing satellites. She recently left the aerospace industry to raise her two children. She enjoys doing science experiments with them and loves seeing how excited they get applying the things they learn.

Her passion for the space industry brought her to the Challenger Learning Center to inspire another generation of scientists and engineers and give them the opportunity to apply their knowledge flying missions. She enjoys exposing students to the numerous opportunities in the space industry and that their possibilities are endless when they reach for the stars. Outside of work, Susan enjoys camping, hiking, and gardening.


Judy Stellato, Flight Director

Commander Judy was born and raised in Chicago but currently living in Orland Park, IL. She holds a bachelors degree in both Elementary Education and Science from Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, IL and a masters degree in Education Administration from Governors State University. She also has received a National Board Certification in Early Adolescent Science in 2011. Judy taught middle school science at Jerling Junior High in Orland Park for 25 years and retired in the spring of 2017. During her teaching career, her philosophy has been that having students experience science in a fun, meaningful way with success is the most important; resulting in more students choosing a STEM field as a career. It is this perspective that led her to bring her students to the Challenger Learning Center for many years. As a science teacher she has had the opportunity to do many incredibly cool things with some of the highlights being: chosen to participate in a Zero G flight on the "Vomit Comet" and being able to experience weightlessness; have students talk via amateur radio to U.S. astronaut Jerry Linnenger while he was aboard the Russian Space Mir; and work on research projects at both Argonne National Lab and Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee. When she is not looking at the stars, her hobbies are reading, bowling and watching NASCAR. 


Kevin Roper, Flight Director

Commander Kevin graduated from Alderson Broaddus University with his Bachelor’s in Elementary Education. His true love for science did not take off until his college courses where everything became tied to a hands-on experiment. He was able to take samples of acid mine drainage, track storms and see mars among the stars. He believes that the best way to learn is through hands-on experience because it is no longer sitting in a book, it is happening right in front of someone’s eyes. Commander Kevin is one of our Challenger kids who took part in a mission back when he was in fifth grade! He is excited to be working at Challenger because he wants students to have and gain the same experience he had when completing his mission. Outside of taking people to space, Kevin enjoys family time, hanging out with his friends and his dog Abby. He takes to the sky through volleyball as well as launching not only space shuttles but also launching people into the air by coaching and participating in competitive cheerleading. 


Amy George, Flight Director 

Commander Amy Graduated from Indiana University Northwest with a degree in Elementary Education.  After graduating from college, she taught in the East Chicago Public School system for eight years and in Portage Township Schools for one year.  While teaching, she continued her education and added Middle School Science and Kindergarten Endorsements to her teaching license.  During her time as a classroom teacher, she served as a Science Olympiad Coach and loved teaching her students hands-on science lessons.  Amy is currently a substitute teacher within the Portage Township and Duneland School districts. 

Amy learned about the Challenger Center while she was working on her continuing education classes.  She had the opportunity to visit the center and complete a mission with her classmates and to visit the planetarium.  This unique opportunity is when she realized that she had a passion to study space and pass the knowledge on to her students.  Amy also had the opportunity to bring her 6th grade students to the Challenger Center to participate in a moon mission and her 2nd grade students to participate in a lesson in the planetarium.  Commander Amy is thrilled to join the Challenger team as a Flight Director and is looking forward to watching the excitement of the students build as they work through the tasks of the missions.

When Amy is not teaching, or flying a mission, she enjoys camping, hiking, biking and traveling with her husband. She also enjoys scrapbooking, doing puzzles and baking during the winter months.


Linda Schwab, Flight Director

Commander Linda knew she wanted to be a scientist in 2nd grade, and dreamed of being an astronaut. She was profoundly impacted by the loss of the Challenger shuttle while in high school. She graduated from Purdue University with a degree in Natural Resources and Environmental Science, and began working as an environmental consultant. While on the job, she realized that mapping with satellite imagery was a fantastic research tool that combined her love of both space and Earth science, and obtained a Master’s degree in Physical Geography at the University of Illinois. She has mapped and studied the landscapes of the Mojave desert and Illinois. She first learned of the Challenger Learning Center after her oldest child visited on a school field trip and came home, racing through the door shouting, “Mom, you’ve GOT to sign me up for summer camp! That trip was awesome!”. Once she saw Challenger Learning Center, she agreed that this place was indeed awesome. Commander Linda is honored to carry on the mission of the Challenger crew and hopes to inspire students to use their own ingenuity in science and reach for the stars! When Commander Linda is not flying a mission, you might spot her at high school band concerts, on soccer field sidelines, or exploring a National Park.