VLA seeks to expand learning with STEM Center

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The Next Generation Very Large Array Learning Center would be located next to the array operations building. (Artists’ representations courtesy of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory)

SOCORRO – Since its commissioning in 1980, the Very Large Array (VLA) in Socorro County has seen continuous upgrades and additions – and a recently announced planned project would expand and enhance learning opportunities for STEM students.

Associated Universities Inc., which operates the National Radio Astronomy Observatory under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation, submits Congressional-directed spending request for $10 million for a learning center Next-Generation Planned at VLA, according to an NRAO press release.

Dave Finley, NRAO press officer in Socorro, said the proposed learning center would be a state-of-the-art facility serving both STEM education and potentially providing an economic boost to the county of Socorro.

“One of the things we hear people complaining about trying to attract new industry here is that we don’t have enough highly skilled STEM personnel here in the state to provide the workforce. work that would attract this kind of economic development,” he said. “So we would play an important role in attracting students into these science, technology, engineering and math careers.

“And do that by providing training and resources for formal K-12 education and for informal education, which is the kind of thing we do with tours and events for the public at the VLA. We We have a lot of great STEM jobs here in New Mexico. With NRAO, New Mexico Tech. With the different universities. With Sandia labs and Los Alamos, etc.

The idea is simple: Create a facility adjacent to the VLA Operations Building that would provide in-person and virtual STEM education for K-12 students, and expand and improve the Visitor Center, Finley said.

“We believe this will help develop a diverse and globally competitive STEM workforce by attracting New Mexico students, who are 60% Latino and 11% Native American, into STEM careers” , did he declare.

The proposed next generation learning center at the VLA would incorporate and expand on what the VLA has provided over the years.

“We’ve had a visitor center since 1983 and its exhibits have evolved over time,” Finley said. “We call it a center of learning because it’s definitely going to continue to be a visitor center, with much improved exhibits and a much better experience for tourists, but it’s also going to be a hub for STEM education. .”

Finley believes the improvements will make the center a more attractive tourist destination.

“It will attract more tourists and of course have an economic impact right here for the local community,” he said. “We get tens of thousands of visitors every year, before COVID, and they come from all over. One year I went through the guestbook that people sign, and it was all 50 states and over 40 other countries.

He said NRAO has been working on this upgrade for some time.

“It’s not something we just made up,” he said. “We now have a concept design. We hired an architecture firm. We have a fundraiser on board.

The choice of location was obvious.

“It will be over there at the VLA, where we are now,” he said. “It’s just where people have been going for many years.”

Plans are to start with the old cafeteria building, which hasn’t been used as a cafeteria for many years, and build from there.

“We are going to renovate and modify it, and also build an extension there,” he said. “We spent many hours with an architect walking through the area, asking many questions about what we wanted, and then producing a design that incorporated what we felt we needed.”

Finley said the final concept is the result of finding out what other people would support and need.

“We’ve turned to a lot of people for advice and support, basically, in what they want,” he said. “And the result is that we got unanimous support for it.”

Finley said the project is receiving positive endorsements, both nationally and statewide, including from New Mexico Tech, University of New Mexico, Intel, Associated Universities, Lab Air Force Research Center, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia Labs, the state Public Education Department, the state Department of Economic Development, and other agencies and institutions.

He said the project is estimated at around $20 million.

“The total budget is $20 million, so we’re asking Congress for half of that in a Congressional-led spending request. It’s a Senate committee that can put that appropriation in the budget,” Finley said. “Our senators especially wanted to see expressions of community support, and we got that from those institutions.”

At its last meeting, the Socorro County Commission passed a resolution in support of the project.

The resolution asks Senator Ben Ray Luján, DN.M., to present the Congressional funding request.

“Sen. Luján and Senator (Martin) Heinrich will pitch to the Senate committee. What they needed was all that show of support from the local and regional community and across the state to convince this committee Senate that we should get that $10 million,” Finely said. “We’ve also been in close communication with (Rep.) Yvette Herrell’s office, as well as (Rep.) Melanie Stansbury in Albuquerque. us on it.

The new facility would then be a normal part of the NRAO budget.

“Our funding agency is the National Science Foundation,” he said. “They are very supportive of STEM education, both formal and informal, so it will be part of our normal VLA operation and then the next generation of VLA.”

The Next Generation Very Large Array Learning Center would be located next to the array operations building.

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