A regional science and discovery center planned for Harford County has a new home and a new name, and on March 4, a virtual community meeting will be held for people learn more about the project and how they can contribute.
The people behind the nonprofit Discovery Center at Water’s Edge — formerly known as the APG Discovery Center — have visions of a full-scale science center that will attract more than 100,000 people to the region each year and contribute millions of dollars to the local economy.
“We want this to be first class, we want to make the investment in first-class learning opportunities that don’t feel so much like you’re learning, but that you’re having experiences and interacting with them,” said Sue Manning, a member of the Discovery Center’s board of directors.
Plans for a 35,000-square-foot facility, targeted to open by 2026, would include interactive exhibits, maker spaces for hands-on projects, science-themed outdoor play areas, and would serve as a hub for STEM programs in the community. In October, the board signed a lease with Water’s Edge developer Jim Foulk to locate the center there.
Foulk intends to develop the property in Belcamp to include a hotel and other amenities, and Manning said the science center is “a perfect compliment” to his vision.
But, for now, they are starting small, with plans to open a 3,500-square-foot preview center by September in a building on the Water’s Edge campus along Route 40, at the opposite end of the Belcamp Post Office.
“We call it our preview center because it’s not quite ready for prime time yet,” said Joan Michel, a managing partner at Profile Partners, a consulting firm tapped by the Discovery Center’s Board of Directors.
The preview center will include some full-scale exhibits and won’t have an admission fee, Michel said, but is a starting point for the ambitious project.
“What we’re really talking about is a place for learners of all ages to play with science,” Michel said. “We don’t want this to feel like school, we want this to be like the Lancaster Science Factory, the Ithaca Sciencenter or even the Maryland Science Center, where you get your hands dirty.
“If they happen to learn some things about physics or chemistry or math in the process, we’re just thrilled.”
Phase two of the project involves development and build out of that space to make a more operational Discovery Center, planned to be completed by mid-2023. That would include about 8,000 square feet of exhibit, classroom and multipurpose space indoors, as well as a 60-seat theater.
An additional 2,500 square feet of outdoor science and technology activities would feature a mini-golf course and a “destination” playground.
“If you have kids and there is a really great playground that you’ve heard of, you’re probably going to travel there,” Michel said, noting the playground would be open to the public, not just paying visitors to the Discovery Center.
Manning said a lot of energy and investment will go into the outdoor space of the property, which backs up to the Bush River.
“Our outdoor space is beautiful and we know outdoor activities are very popular and have been a big draw for other science centers,” she said.
To do all of that, the Discovery Center group will be launching a $3 million capital campaign, which will coincide with the virtual community meeting being held from 5 to 6 p.m. next Thursday.
“That’s going to get us to the point our doors are open and we’re hosting classes for kids, one outdoor structure, an outdoor maker space,” Manning said.
The meeting will be held on Zoom, and attendees must register in advance at discovery-center.eventbrite.com. Login credentials will be sent to an email address upon registration. People interested in learning more can also call 410-417-7116.
A second, larger capital campaign aimed at raising about $25 million is planned a few years down the road, that would help pay for a more permanent, free-standing Discovery Center on the Water’s Edge campus. A feasibility study conducted a few years ago suggests such a facility could add more than 180 jobs and as much as $14 million to the local economy.
“We already have everything we need in this region to create this,” Michel said. “We’re a wealthy region, we have a lot of science and technology expertise, one of the nation’s primary defense R&D facilities, and of course we have the need on the part of employers to be hiring people with STEM backgrounds, we have a need for increased science and technology literacy.”
What’s in a name?
The branding of the Discovery Center at Water’s Edge was recently changed, not only to include its planned home, but dropping “APG” from the title.
While the group still hopes to have an association and partnership with Aberdeen Proving Ground — and highlighting the science and technology happening there — the name was leading to confusion that the Discovery Center was a U.S. Army project.
“Our science community is built on what’s happening at APG, that’s been the anchor for 100 years, but we’re not part of it,” Michel said. “We’re not funded by the Army, we’re in no way associated with them formally.”
But the center’s origins do lie with Harford County’s largest employer.
Plans for the family-friendly Discovery Center started to take shape about a decade ago, after the United States Army Ordnance Museum at Aberdeen Proving Ground closed in 2010.
The Ordnance Museum was once Harford County’s top tourist destination, but following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, APG closed its gates to the public to improve security, and the museum was eventually relocated to Fort Lee in Virginia.
Manning said a group of people got together after that seeking to fill the tourism void, but also find a way to leverage the scientific research and technological advances happening at APG. That led to the project originally being called the APG Discovery Center.
“We’ve got this beautiful science-based research center of excellence that is internationally renowned, and we’ve got a lot of scientists and physicists and a big need for people to grow up and wanting to go into those careers,” Manning explained.
With hopes to draw thousands of tourists to the area outside of Harford, though, the Discover Center’s leadership determined the acronym “APG” didn’t have much cache beyond the county’s borders.
“If you live here, or have family that works on APG, you’re good. But generally people don’t know what those letters stand for,” Manning said. “We’re still going to have information and partnerships with APG, we’re just not going to use that in our name because we think it distracts from the broad base.”
Exhibits at the Discovery Center may showcase the history of some of the work done at APG and also feature some of the work being done there and by government contractors at present, which could become commonplace in the future. Michel noted how APG was using email and 3D printers in the 1980s and ’90s.
“Can you imagine if we had seen 3D printing back in the ’80s? It would’ve blown our minds,” she said. “That’s our idea. What are we working on now in our region that is going to change our world 20 years from now? Can we bring that outside the gate and let people really experience it, play with it and learn about it.”
Some exhibit concepts outlined in the Discovery Center’s look book include a visible vehicle display, in which the components of a race car are suspended from the ceiling to show how they all fit together; a relief map of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed that would use augmented reality visualization and laser light technology to show how runoff impacts the bay; and a mind race, where visitors would use headgear embedded with neural sensors to use the power of concentration to push their horse toward the finish line.
Another exhibit concept would have visitors trade places with their pet dog in a virtual reality simulator.
“You’re trying to find a lost set of keys using your sight, your smell and it shows the difference in the sight line of a dog versus and human, and using your olfactory sense to locate things, but it also has a connection to our region in that the very first sniffer dogs were trained and developed at APG,” Michel explained. “So it has a historical aspect to it, it’s got an everyday science aspect, and it’s just going to be a ton a fun.”
Pandemic delays ‘a blessing’
In February of last year, the Discovery Center’s leadership was planning a May science festival at Ripken Stadium to highlight the future science center and launch its capital campaign, and had hoped to get a preview center opened later in 2020. All of those plans were derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In many ways, it’s been a blessing that we had not opened,” Michel said. “We’re able to give ourselves a little more time to build our online presence and our partnerships before we launch.”
One of those was the partnership with Foulk to locate the center at Water’s Edge.
Delays also gave leadership time to talk with other centers, like the Ithaca Sciencenter in New York — which Manning said is what they are trying to emulate — about how they are handling COVID and hands-on learning.
“In addition to seeing how other people are handling it, we’re fortunate in that our timing is going to work out that people are going to be inoculated by the time we’re open,” Michel said.
The Magic of Science Festival is on hold for now, but Manning is optimistic about having it in the future. Hundreds of people had expressed an interest in attending the May 2020 event before it had to be scrapped.
“Hopefully by 2022, we can have our festival with larger groups,” Manning said. “The festival is definitely on the back burner, but we think we can get 20, 30, 40 people at a time into the preview center and get families and kids out there playing mini-golf or the playground.”
If you go
What: Discovery Center at Water’s Edge virtual community meeting on Zoom