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Workshop Strengthens UW-NCAR Partnership

August 19, 2011
Man and woman
Mary Haley, a software engineer from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, works with University of Wyoming Ph.D. student Damao Zhang during a four-day workshop on NCAR Command Language. (UW Photo)

The University of Wyoming, with students from more than 75 countries, is a diverse place where the use of different languages is common.

This week, though, UW was introduced to a new language: The National Center for Atmospheric Research's (NCAR) Command Language.

To bolster its deepening relationship with UW, NCAR staged one of its cutting-edge workshops for the first time in Wyoming, using lectures, tutorials and hands-on computer work to educate researchers on how to analyze scientific data through calculations and visualizations.

"It's been a good learning experience," says Damao Zhang, a UW Ph.D. student from China who studies atmospheric science. "The NCAR teachers are very good. They know their software and they provide a good guide on how you can learn it, even in just a few days. This is a great opportunity to learn tools that are going to be useful for me in the future."

With its newest supercomputing facility being constructed some 45 miles east of Laramie, NCAR saw the four-day workshop in the UW College of Engineering building as a "perfect opportunity" to strengthen its partnership with the university, says NCAR software engineer Mary Haley.

The Cheyenne-based NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC) is being developed in partnership with UW, the state of Wyoming, Cheyenne LEADS, the Wyoming Business Council and Cheyenne Light, Fuel and Power. It will contain some of the world's most powerful supercomputers dedicated to improving scientific understanding of climate change, severe weather, air quality and other vital atmospheric science and geoscience topics. The center will also house a premier data storage and archival facility that holds irreplaceable historical climate records and other information.

The NWSC is expected to be in operation by June 2012.

"The more people we have on campus with an understanding of NCAR Command Language (NCL), the more we'll be able to take advantage of the time we have on the supercomputer," says Bryan Shader, a special assistant to the Vice President for Research and Economic Development and UW's liaison with NCAR. "We'll use the supercomputer to crunch all the data. But when we need to see it, present it to the public or analyze it, we first need to understand the language."

While NCL could easily "take a semester" to learn, Haley says NCAR maximizes its short time with students by encouraging them to use their own data.

"We teach them how to use NCL to analyze their own data sets instead of providing canned examples or saying, ‘Here's a toy example to try,' because we want them to not only learn NCL but retain what they've learned," says Haley, one of three NCAR instructors at the workshop. "They're going to be much more likely to remember how to use the language when they looked at their own data."

The workshop included 24 participants: 14 UW students, four UW faculty or staff researchers and six students supported by the National Science Foundation's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

"Any workshop that NCAR organizes is really good," says Sasha Hararuk, a Ph.D. student from the University of Oklahoma who studies solar-terrestrial ecology. "Last year, I visited the CLM workshop at Boulder, Colo., and that helped me a lot. So has this workshop. It helps a lot to listen to lectures, to have practice sessions like we do and to have instructors coming up to you and asking, ‘What do you need help with?'"

"It's also nice because you bring your actual data and that helps to advance your own studies."

UW researchers will likely have more opportunities to train with NCAR scientists, Shader says.

The Office of Academic Affairs has funded enhancements to a campus computer lab, equipping the space with the appropriate technology to conduct future workshops.

"This," says Shader, "is just the first of what we hope will be a series of workshops on high-performance computing with NCAR."

To learn more about the NWSC project, go to the website at

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