NWSC visitor center exhibits

A key goal of the NWSC facility project was to broaden its impact through an active public visitor program. The primary element of that program was a planned NWSC visitor exhibit to explain the science goals of NCAR and the University of Wyoming, as well as the technology employed at the NWSC to realize these goals. The NCAR-Wyoming partnership’s NWSC education and outreach strategic goals are derived from an understanding of the national and regional challenges of STEM education and are designed to leverage the unique strengths of the founding NWSC partners. In October 2012, the NWSC opened its doors to the public, and inaugurated its Educational Visitor Center.

Wyoming students visiting NWSC
A student group concludes a visit at the NWSC, where they learned about supercomputing, science, and how research and technology benefits society. Experiences like this help students explore STEM disciplines and consider careers in science and high-tech fields.

CISL OSG staff, in collaboration with advisors from the UCAR Center for Science Education, the University of Wyoming (UW), and the Laramie County Public Library, worked to create a visitor experience at the NWSC that would engage and educate audiences of all ages and backgrounds in NCAR’s and UW’s science, the facility’s state-of-the-art green design, and the capabilities of the supercomputers it houses. The educational goal of the exhibit was to explain how the NWSC’s research and science mission benefit people and society while providing visitors with a fun and memorable experience.

In total, the content includes 16 professionally produced video segments, three short animated films, two touchscreen interactive games, two kinesthetic interactive elements, multiple question-and-answer displays, and science and technical content and accompanying vivid “story-telling” imagery for the six focus-area themes. This year, a new animation that describes the infrastructure of the NWSC was added to the exhibits.

The NWSC visitor center has exceeded initial estimates for community interest, total visitors, organized group tours, and school group visits. Since opening in October 2012, the visitor center has hosted more than 7,000 visitors, which is about 11% of the population of Cheyenne, Wyoming, where the NWSC is located. In FY2015, nearly 30 school groups and more than 550 students visited the NWSC. In addition, the center has received 32 non-school groups. Currently, relatively few American students pursue studies in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and STEM education for both students and teachers has become a national priority. The NWSC exhibit has served as the nexus for regional STEM events tackling this problem, hosting groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs of Douglas, Wyoming, school field trips, and summer activity groups.

In short, the NWSC Visitor Center has yielded rich opportunities for outreach and education about NCAR science, scientific computing, mathematics, and engineering. The STEM disciplines come to life at the NWSC, where visitors can explore interdisciplinary yet related topics like extreme weather, climate change, energy, water resources, supercomputing, facility design, energy efficient technologies, and human health.

The NWSC visitor center is intended for self-guided tours for individuals and groups of all ages and backgrounds, and it can also be used for presentations and special events. The visitor center consists of a theater for watching a video overview; two science displays, each with two sides having a different science focus area; a young scientist display that includes a tornado simulator and an interactive computer speed demonstration; and a supercomputer display at which visitors can see inside the supercomputer and interact with an exhibit that connects the concepts of electrical power with computing power through a hand-crank “generator.” A key educational goal of the visitor center was to include content that would convey elements of computational thinking. These include interactive activities that explain the concept of speedup in parallel computing and identify other kinds of parallel systems in everyday life. To engage diverse audiences, the videos in the exhibits also include Spanish-language subtitles.

The NWSC visitor center was financed using NWSC construction funds from the NSF and the University of Wyoming, and it is maintained using NSF Core funds.