The Next Generation Very Large Array Learning Center expands the NRAO site on the San Agustin Plains to support STEM education while offering an enhanced experience for tourists.
Artist Renderings courtesy of NRAO

Since going operational in 1980, the Very Large Array in Socorro County has seen continual upgrades and additions, a recently announced planned project would expand and enhance learning opportunities for STEM students.

To that end, a press release from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory stated that Associated Universities, Inc. which operates the NRAO  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 Very Large Array.

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 give 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 also for informal education, which is the kind of thing we do with tours and events for the public at the VLA,” Finley said. “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; to create a facility adjacent to the array operations building that would serve 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’s students, who are 60 percent Latino and 11 percent Native American, into STEM careers.”

The proposed Next Generation Learning Center at the Very Large Array 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 going to be a hub for STEM education. “

The Next Generation VLA Learning Center will be located adjacent to the array’s operation building.

The facility will be known as a visitor center/museum, making it more enhanced than the existing visitor center, and Finley believes it will make it a much more attractive tourist attraction.

“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. I went through the guest book that people sign one year 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 up 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 New Mexico Tech, UNM, Intel, Associated Universities, Inc., Air Force Research Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia Labs, New Mexico PED, NM Economic Development Department, and other public and privates 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 Congressionally 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 last meeting, the Socorro County Commission passed a resolution to support the project.

The resolution pointed out that “the Next Generation Learning Center will contribute to the STEM ecosystem in New Mexico, providing additional much-needed state-of-the-art STEM experiences to students. Teachers, too, will be served by the Next Generation Learning Center, through professional development opportunities and curriculum resources.”

The resolution requests that Sen, Ben Ray Lujan put forward the Congressional funding request.

“Sen. Lujan and Sen. 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 Yvette Herrell’s office, as well as Melanie Stansbury in Albuquerque,”  They’ve been working with us on this.”

When all is said and done, the new facility will 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 and so it will be part of our normal running of the VLA and then the next generation VLA.”

In addition, the admission fees and gift shop sales will contribute significantly in helping to support the operations and maintenance, Finley said. “And all of this is going to be based here in Socorro County.”