Donning a robotic exoskeleton and lifting the front end of a vehicle is just one of the activities organizers are planning for the discovery center headed for Aberdeen.
This fall, 1,200 square feet of the city’s Amtrak station will host a preview of the APG Discovery Center, an ambitious plan to bring interactive exhibits on robotics, virtual reality and computer science to Aberdeen Proving Ground’s backyard.
The preview center will likely include a series of challenges for visitors, perhaps programming a robot to perform a task as a countdown clock ticks away, said Michael Burns, design director of Quatrefoil, the company commissioned to plan the exhibits.
“One of the big overarching goals for the discovery center will be to excite and inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers who will work at Aberdeen,” said Abbie Chessler, one of the firm’s founders.
The center will also showcase technology that’s in the works, said Joan Michel, a managing partner at Profile Partners, a consulting firm tapped by the APG Discovery Center’s board.
“The reason why we want to focus on APG is because of the technology that is developed there,” she said. “The things that are going to be commonplace 20 years from now are being worked on right now.”
But the center’s future is altogether uncertain. Cruising toward a planned opening date in 2022, the board is still on the hunt for the center’s permanent home, and they’re combing through lists of vacant properties on the U.S. Route 40 corridor, such as office buildings and grocery stores.
One of the bigger issues they’ve encountered is finding a property with high ceilings that would allow for hanging displays. They’d also like to have an auditorium space, Michel said.
“There's no reason why we couldn't occupy an existing space and then add a function or feature onto it,” she said.
And they still have thousands of dollars left to raise. About $200,000 more is needed to renovate the train station for the preview center, as well as $3 million to open a small-scale facility in 2022, and $25 million to open the full-scale center in 2025 or 2026.
So far, they’ve secured $250,000 in grant money for the preview center from the state, which was approved by the Board of Public Works at its meeting last Wednesday, as well as a Harford County Tourism grant and funds from the City of Aberdeen and private partners.
But the preview center itself has been delayed by legal red tape associated with the train station’s multiple stakeholders, organizers said. They were originally gunning for a debut in mid-September, but have since set their sights on opening any time this fall.
The exhibits will be targeted toward a seventh-grade learning level, but will be for “learners of all ages,” said Barney Michel, president of the APG Discovery Center board.
“It’s not like Fisher Price toys,” he said.
Organizers are also considering exhibits on programming drones and about the science behind training explosive-sniffing dogs at APG South in Edgewood.
“We want to bring science to the people, you meet people where they are,” Joan Michel said. “So if dogs are going to bring people into a science center, then we’re absolutely going to do that.”
Planning the discovery center has also meant looking to the past.
The Army Ordnance Museum, which was on the proving grounds, closed about a decade ago after base realignment moved many of its artifacts to Fort Lee in Virginia. Some of the artifacts, which included a German cannon from World War II and Iraqi equipment captured during the Gulf War, stayed behind with the hope that a new museum would be commissioned, but that plan was eventually scrapped.
For the board, what happened to the Army Ordnance Museum is an indication that their endeavor needs to go beyond a history museum — and it needs to be outside the gates.
“Up until the relatively recent past, the whole approach was: behind the gate, you keep it over there. We’re not interested,” Barney Michel said. “Just keep the booms down.”
“And that has all changed,” he added.
As such, the center hopes to showcase the technological advancements pioneered at the proving ground, such as the world’s first digital computer, remaining easily accessible to the community all the while.
But, the center won’t rely solely on the history, Joan Michel said.
“We're not building a museum, we're building a discovery center,” she said.
The museum will be divided into the past, present and future, with the technology of the present making up the largest section, Burns said.
Organizers hope it can become a leading tourist attraction between Baltimore and Philadelphia.
A Towson University Regional Economic Studies Institute report indicated that the discovery center has the capacity to generate more than $1 million in economic output, with a low visitor estimate, and up to $13 million with a high visitor estimate.
But its lack of an official partnership with the proving ground threatens the project, the report found, as does its large scope.
“The Client’s proposed [discovery center] would be a unique site in Harford County and would keep a distinctive component of local history and knowledge alive,” the report read. “While the idea has merit and has the potential to thrive due to external economic and demographic conditions, plans for the [center] should be more thoroughly described and detailed before the plan is implemented.”
Recently, after complicated discussions with APG about formal partnerships, the board opted to pursue individual agreements with each major command and organization at the proving ground.
“While we will eventually have something in ink, the lack of a formal agreement doesn’t prevent us from working daily with our colleagues at APG just as any member of the public can do,” Joan Michel wrote in an email.
But the board’s determined group of volunteers is optimistic about its future.
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“It's not going to be just a two-dimensional experience. It’s going to be a three, four … Hey, we're talking about showcasing the future,” Joan Michel said.