Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

VLA seeks to expand learning with STEM Center

The Next Generation Very Large Array Learning Center would be located adjacent to the arrays operation building. (Artist renderings courtesy of National Radio Astronomy Observatory)

SOCORRO – Since going operational in 1980, the Very Large Array (VLA) in Socorro County has seen continual 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 through a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation, is submitting a congressionally directed spending request to the tune of $10 million for a planned Next Generation Learning Center at the VLA, according to a NRAO newsrelease.

Dave Finley, press officer for NRAO in Socorro, said the proposed learning center would be a state-of-the-art facility serving both STEM education and conceivably giving Socorro County an economic boost.

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

“And do it by providing training and resources for both the formal education K-12 and for informal education, which is the kind of thing we do with tours and events for the public at the VLA. We have a lot of very good STEM jobs here in New Mexico. With NRAO, New Mexico Tech. With the various universities. With Sandia and Los Alamos laboratories, and the like.”

The idea is simple: create a facility adjacent to the VLA operations building that would offer in-person and virtual STEM education to K-12 students, and enlarge and enhance the visitor center, Finley said.

“We feel this will contribute to the development of a diverse, globally competitive STEM workforce by attracting New Mexico students, who are 60% Latino and 11% Native American, into STEM careers,” he said.

The proposed Next Generation Learning Center at the VLA would incorporate and expand what the VLA has provided over the years.

“We’ve had a Visitors’ Center out there since 1983 and its exhibits have evolved over all that time,” Finley said. “We’re calling it a learning center because it’s certainly going to continue to be a visitor center, with much-enhanced exhibits and a much better experience for the tourists, but it’s also going to be a hub for STEM education.”

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

“That will draw more tourists and will, of course, bring economic impact right here to the local community,” he said. “We get tens of thousands of visitors yearly, prior to COVID, and they come from all over. One year, I went through the guest book that people sign, and it was all 50 states and more than 40 other countries.”

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

“This isn’t something that we just came up with,” he said. “We now have a concept design. We hired an architectural firm. We have an on-board fundraiser.”

The selection of the location was a no-brainer.

“It will be right out there at the VLA, where we are now,” he said. “It’s right there where people have been driving to for many years.”

The plans call for starting with the former cafeteria building, which hasn’t been used as a cafeteria for many years, and build out from that.

“We will renovate and alter it, and also build an extension onto it,” he said. “We spent many hours with an architect walking over the area, who was asking many questions about what we wanted, and then to produce a design that incorporates what we feel we need.”

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

“We have looked to a lot of people for advice and support, basically, in what they want,” he said. “And the result is that we’ve been getting unanimous support for this.”

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

He said the project is estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $20 million.

“The total budget is $20 million, so we’re asking Congress for half of that in a progressively directed spending request. It’s a senate committee that can put this earmark in the budget,” Finley said. “Our senators particularly wanted to see expressions of support from the community, and we got it from those institutions.”

At its most recent meeting, the Socorro County Commission passed a resolution to support the project.

The resolution requests Sen. Ben Ray Luján, DN.M., put forward the congressional funding request.

“Sen. Luján and Sen. (Martin) Heinrich will make the pitch to the senate committee. What they needed was all this show of support from the local and regional community and statewide to convince this senate committee that we should get this $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. They’ve been working with us on this.”

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 running of the VLA and then the next-generation VLA.”

The Next Generation Very Large Array Learning Center would be located adjacent to the array’s operation building.

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