Beyond Boulder: NCAR’s Virtual Tours Allow a Wider Audience to Experience Its Exhibits

Anyone can experience the wonders of the Mesa Lab and supercomputing facility from afar

December 12, 2022 – by Laura Snider

Long touted as a top activity for visitors to the Boulder, Colorado area, the weather and climate exhibits at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) typically drew tens of thousands of people a year before the COVID-19 pandemic does not force exhibitions to close.

The closures, however, came with a silver lining. The pandemic has given staff at the Center for Science Education (SciEd) at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) extra time and motivation to create a virtual tour web application which allows anyone from anywhere to experience the excitement of NCAR, both in the iconic Mesa Lab in Boulder and the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC) in Cheyenne, in a 360-degree virtual environment.

While in-person exhibits at Mesa Lab have recently reopened to the public, virtual tour applications remain an important priority for the SciEd team. Since the launch of the apps, SciEd has continued to add new content and is currently working on the ability for virtual guests to walk Walter Orr Roberts’ breathtaking Interpretive Weather Trail that sits behind the Mesa Lab, a feature that they plan to launch. in spring. Now, UCAR SciEd is soliciting feedback on virtual tours through a survey of app users.

“We’re trying to figure out what content people prefer,” said Katie Wolfson, SciEd’s school and public programs manager. “Should we add more videos? Rather augmented reality? Which features are the most appealing? »

The virtual tour application
Take a virtual tour of our facilities online at

Mesa Lab’s physical exhibits have long allowed in-person visitors to get a sense of the vital science undertaken at NCAR. Exhibit areas focus on weather, climate, and the Sun-Earth connection, while providing insight into the airborne field campaigns facilitated by NCAR and the history of the laboratory’s unique architecture. The NWSC’s physical exhibits highlight the vast power of supercomputing and its importance for studying the complex connections of the Earth system.

In the virtual tour app, visitors can browse all exhibits at both locations. Although they cannot physically interact with the screens, the rich content offered online provides them with a unique experience, in some cases beyond what can be seen in person. For example, virtual visitors can rotate and rotate objects that in-person visitors can only see mounted in a fixed position. This includes a dropsonde – an instrument dropped in hurricanes to collect data used to improve storm forecasting – and a satellite that collects atmospheric data by measuring the curvature of the GPS signal.

Visitors can also tune into a webcast and take a virtual tour led by Wolfson and fellow SciEd Tim Barnes. Hundreds of people have taken part in the facilitated virtual tours, which are part of a larger list of virtual offerings which include Meet the Experts Q&A sessions with scientists and virtual field trips for K-12 groups. Since the start of the pandemic, these live virtual programs have reached 37 states and 13 countries.

“Our virtual strategy has allowed us to continue to engage audiences and reach more people in more places,” said SciEd team member Emily Snode-Brenneman. “We are delighted to have reopened our Boulder-based exhibits to the public, but we have no plans to stop our virtual programming. In fact, we plan to continue expanding the content so that people around the world have the opportunity to experience NCAR.

Anyone can register for a public tour, a private group tour or a virtual excursion on the SciEd website.

Participate in the survey!

Once you’ve had a chance to explore the virtual tour, let us know what you think! Look “down” towards your feet for a link to the survey (or go there directly) and share your impressions!

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