NCAR Supercomputer Exhibit
When the RFP for designing educational exhibits for the Visitor’s Center at the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputing Center (NWSC) showed up in the mail, the strategic and creative teams at Warehouse Twenty One were as giddy as geeks in an Apple store. Although we were competing against a large field that included nationally renowned exhibit firms, we were confident we could make the grade when it came to delivering strategically sound, technically solid educational solutions with a highly creative execution.
The new Supercomputing Center, then under construction on the outskirts of Cheyenne, Wyoming, was slated to open in October, 2012. It was designed to house the Yellowstone supercomputer, one of the fastest supercomputers in the world. Operated by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) under the sponsorship of the National Science Foundation, Yellowstone was designed to provide advanced computing services to scientists studying climate, weather, oceanography, air pollution, space weather, computational science, and other disciplines.
The RFP called for the design and installation of several interactive educational exhibits in the Center’s visitor area. Because the Center was a LEED-certified building, it was critical to take energy consumption into consideration when designing the exhibits. Other important design considerations included ensuring that the exhibits complemented the architecture of the facility, addressing a wide range of educational levels to provide a positive learning experience for visitors of all ages, positioning exhibits to establish optimal traffic flow throughout the Visitor Center, and constructing them to stand up to the constant use and occasional abuse that would be dished out by thousands of curious — and sometimes overly enthusiastic — school-aged visitors.
Warehouse Twenty One’s winning proposal clearly resonated with the Center’s staff of scientists and support personnel. Our plan included several interactive learning stations that helped explain the science of supercomputing, weather, climate, and other topics related to atmospheric research, in simple terms. Despite a tight timeline and the expectation that working with a committee of scientists with different areas of interest could complicate decision-making, our turnkey proposal promised the design, creation, programming and installation of fully functional educational exhibits — including a custom-designed tornado-making machine — by the Center’s scheduled opening.
Our goal was to make the learning exhibits visually attractive, highly interactive, universally informative and scientifically accurate. To that end, we met with the Center’s scientists to determine which scientific disciplines they wanted to highlight and then we detailed how each of the learning stations would function and what information they would provide.
Our plan was to create eight learning stations and a main theater space that together, comprised approximately 1,700 square feet.
We presented a plan that called for creating eight learning stations and a main theater space that together, comprised approximately 1,700 square feet. Learning stations included two Kids science stations (one focusing on weather, the other on computational science and the supercomputer), two stations devoted to the Supercomputer and one each focusing on Forces and Resources, Extreme Weather, Science and Society, and Climate. To help educate young visitors about how tornadoes are formed, the Kids science station features a Warehouse Twenty One-designed “tornado-making machine” that produces miniature tornadoes. Programming the learning stations’ interactivity to function flawlessly time after time was critical to the project’s success.
In contrast to the ultra-high tech nature of the Supercomputing Center, our design featured a color palette that incorporated earth tones that mirrored the local landscape and the use of organic shapes to create a harmonious and inviting physical space in which to explore supercomputing technology and its scientific application to weather and climate phenomena.
Executing our vision for the Visitor Center required balancing requests for changes against a hard deadline. We faced a hectic schedule and were tweaking the exhibits right up to the day before the Center’s opening. But we were programmed to succeed, so the Warehouse Twenty One team rebooted and completed the installation on time and on budget. The Visitor Center hosts both adult and school-age visitors daily and it has educated and entertained thousands of visitors since the Supercomputer Center’s opening day, making it one of Cheyenne’s most popular educational destinations.