Maximize NWSC impact as a teaching and outreach tool

High school students at NWSC
Students explore the infrastructure required for the NWSC’s supercomputer on an interactive display. The NWSC offers hands-on opportunities for visitors to discover and engage in STEM disciplines. The visitor center is a valuable resource for exposing K-16 students to real-world STEM-related career possibilities.

The NWSC visitor center is located inside the NWSC facility in Cheyenne, Wyoming and offers a high-quality educational experience that includes windows for viewing the computer room, videos, animated films, touchscreen interactive games, kinesthetic interactive elements, question-and-answer displays, and vivid “story-telling” narratives and imagery. NWSC visitors have included members of professional engineering and technical organizations, K-12 school groups, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, summer camps of at-risk youth, and the general public. Student groups visiting the NWSC generally engage in supplemental education activities during their visit and explore careers in STEM disciplines. Since January 2013, the visitor center has averaged 2-3 school groups per month in sizes ranging from 12 to 226. The NWSC plays an important role in supporting the computational needs of the scientific community, and its visitor center helps NCAR present its science and mission to educators, students, the public, Wyoming officials, and professional groups.

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. 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 goals of the exhibit were to explain how the NWSC’s research and science mission benefit people and society, to introduce concepts of computational science and parallel computing, and to provide visitors with a fun and memorable experience. In October 2012, the NWSC opened its doors to the public, and inaugurated its Educational Visitor Center.

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.

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, we updated some of the video content and are preparing for a major update in FY2017, concurrent with the deployment of the NWSC’s newest supercomputer, named Cheyenne.

NWSC’s high-level strategic EOT goals are to:

  • Integrate university research with K-16 education.

  • Build cyberinfrastructure and computational science capacity in Wyoming, regional EPSCoR states, and Front Range institutions.

  • Train the next generation of computational scientists.

  • Complement and enhance programs at community colleges to prepare students for careers in related technical fields.

  • Broaden participation by enhancing the capabilities of community colleges to train students in technical fields that better prepare them for careers in HPC-related technical fields.

  • Broaden diversity by engaging minority-serving institutions, particularly regional tribal colleges and historically black colleges and universities.

  • Build strong foundations and foster innovation to improve K-12 computational thinking, mathematics, and computational geosciences.

  • Engage and inform the public about NWSC science through informal education.

  • Illustrate and explain how the NWSC’s research and science mission benefit people and society while providing visitors with a fun and memorable experience.

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. 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 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 8,069 visitors, which is about 13% of the population of Cheyenne, Wyoming, where the NWSC is located. The NWSC hosted 1,311 total visitors in FY2016, including 16 school groups with more than 350 students. In addition, the center received 27 non-school groups totaling nearly 300 members. These numbers represent a decline from previous years which we are addressing through a more robust outreach initiative with a part-time docent and by updating the content and the exhibits, as they have not had significant upgrades since the center opened four years ago.

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.