When visitors spend time around the animals, gardens, science labs and rockets that make up The Longhorn Project at Johnson Space Center, Chairman Andrea Wilson said the environment is unlike anything else in the Houston area.

“You feel like you’re in another world,” she said.

Students from Bay Area school districts, including Clear Creek ISD, have received hands-on science, technology, engineering, math and agricultural education through the nonprofit since 2004. The Longhorn Project, located on the grounds of the Johnson Space Center, aims to provide young learners with educational experiences, leadership and growth opportunities.

Former JSC director George Abbey, inspired by a longhorn photo in his office, came up with the idea to have the animals on the grounds as an educational resource, as well as to showcase the importance of both longhorns and the space industry in Texas. The project is located on 53 acres of land at 2101 E. NASA Parkway, Houston, that features a 35-acre pasture, 11-acre feedlot and 7-acre garden area. The garden area includes a greenhouse, plots, orchards, compost containers and ponds. The Western Heritage Pavilion, which was built and donated by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, is also on the grounds according to the project website.

The Longhorn Project is also home to a show team that raises and exhibits longhorns at state and national shows. Members learn about ranch management, animal husbandry and Texas’ history as it relates to longhorns. All five high schoolers on the existing team are from CCISD. The team exhibits longhorns at state and national shows, including the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and shows in San Antonio and Austin, Wilson said.

The steers selected for exhibition represent a variety of characteristics unique to the breed, and they have been with the project for the duration of their lives. The Longhorn Project is seeking community help to fund nutritional and medical care for the animals; a year of care can be sponsored for $1,500.

“We would leave every show with top rankings, and every year it just gets better and better,” Wilson said of the show team, adding its members gain valuable life lessons about accountability and responsibility. “It just opens up their world.”

The field trips—which Wilson said are suspended due to COVID-19 but will hopefully resume in the spring—blend the on-site longhorn herd with agricultural and STEM-related programming specifically for third through seventh graders. A former science magnet program teacher devised the curriculum, Wilson said. CCISD used to own the project, but it became independent in 2016; the nonprofit was formed to position the program for funding that is not otherwise available to public schools and extend its reach to other educational communities, Wilson said.

Lessons align with classroom curricula and include experiences from time in the rocket park to looking under a microscope. Students learn about animal husbandry, fruit and vegetable cultivation, soil research and recycling technologies, and they discover how this knowledge relates to human space flight.

“It’s sort of bringing what they imagine into real life. ... They get to see up close and personal what they’re looking at in the pictures,” said Wilson, who is entering her fifth year leading the project. “It’s [about] the curiosity and the ‘aha’ moments.”