Kids who are interested in science will love the Mesa Lab at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, or NCAR. Perched in the foothills just south of downtown Boulder, NCAR offers equal parts world-class research laboratory, science exhibit and art gallery, all wrapped up in an outstanding natural setting.
Mesa Lab was built in the early 1960s to house the organization’s research facilities. The angular, distinctive building was designed by architect I.M. Pei, whose other projects include Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the glass pyramid of Paris’ Louvre museum. Pei has said that when he designed the NCAR structure, he was inspired by the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado.
The area surrounding the lab is a nature preserve, with mule deer, fox and other Rocky Mountain wildlife traveling through the area and the adjoining mountain parks. After viewing the exhibits inside, visitors can wander onto the Walter Orr Roberts Weather Trail, a stroller- and wheelchair-accessible loop, to learn more about the weather patterns in the region.
NCAR is part of a non-profit organization, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. With NCAR’s cutting-edge weather and climate technology, the science that takes place here is used by professionals around the world. As a working research laboratory, NCAR is a favorite destination for area schools, and the facility is equally welcoming to drop-in visitors.
The exhibits are divided into two parts: first, move from station to station in an interactive area that provides a fascinating story of Earth’s climate, both in the past and the present. Next, take a self-guided audio tour to learn more about atmospheric science as well as the Mesa Lab building and the environment around the facility.
In the interactive area, a 3-D model of the sun is a favorite; kids love cutaway images, and this one illustrates the sun’s core, sunspots and the magnificent solar flares that can arch 250,000 miles into space. Nearby, the “Light Island” exhibit, created for NCAR by San Francisco’s Exploratorium Museum, lets visitors use mirrors and lenses to bend light, creating rainbows and prisms. Walking upstairs, a two-story mural photo of a 1970 total solar eclipse over Mexico fascinates young scientists.
As a bit of balance to all the science that NCAR offers, a community art gallery provides a creative respite. Featuring oils, photography and acrylics, the works change monthly. Before leaving, kids and their parents can peruse the science store, featuring weather stations, posters, books and DVDs to help remember their visit. My daughter loved the “Pet Tornado,” a hand-held vortex just like the one she watches in the bathtub.
For those who want to spark a child’s interest in the climate by exposing them to world-class science, NCAR is an excellent choice.
If You Go
Mesa Lab at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, 1850 Table Mesa Dr., Boulder, (303) 497-1174 http://eo.ucar.edu/visit/
The Visitor Center is open to the public every day, including holidays. There is no admission fee. Hours are Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday and holidays, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Kelly Smith, who is married and the mother of two daughters, is a longtime Denver resident. Kelly and her family embrace the Western life, enjoying skiing, whitewater rafting and the great outdoors. She is an editor at Colorado Parent magazine and a former editor at Mountain Living magazine. Her stories have appeared in Architecture & Design of the West, Colorado Homes & Lifestyles, Colorado Parent, Herb Companion, Log & Timber Style, Mangia, Mountain Living and Natural Home & Garden.
From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.