InSciTe Gala Highlights Oh Wow’s Future, Celebrates History

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The next phase in the evolution of the Oh Wow! The Roger & Gloria Jones Children’s Center for Science & Technology will aim to extend its educational mission beyond its core audience of middle school students and younger into high school, its executive director said Wednesday evening.

Marvin Logan Jr., who took over as Oh Wow’s executive director in October 2021, shared plans for Phase 4 of the downtown Youngstown science center’s renovation during the inaugural InSciTe Gala.

The event, which was held at the Tyler History Center, also provided the opportunity to recognize individuals and organizations that were instrumental in Oh Wow’s development since its founding, as well as key staff members.  

Demolition of the second floor of the McCrory Building, where Oh Wow is located and which it purchased in 2019 to accommodate the expansion, is expected to begin by the end of May, Logan said. Elements of Phase 4 will include an immersive virtual reality classroom, a 3-D printing and additive manufacturing learning lab and a digital collaboration lab, as well as a rooftop outdoor conservation and greenspace and a “planetary walk” that will lead up to Ward Beecher Planetarium at Youngstown State University.

“This is going to give us the opportunity to really provide substantive type of programming for students, seventh grade through 12th grade, physically in our location and then connect it with the outreach programs and career exploration programs that we would like to do outside of the facility,” he said.

Some exhibits now on the ground floor and lower level will be moved upstairs to provide “a little bit better learning environment,” he added. A traveling exhibit space also is planned for the second floor.

“In a perfect world, I would love for [the second floor upgrades] to be done in 12 months or less,” he said.

Wiley Runnestrand, chairman of Oh Wow’s board of directors, speaks during Wednesday’s event.

“I know for my part as a kid, everything that I learned was through failure, and Oh Wow is a safe place for kids to learn how to actually experiment,” Wiley Runnestrand, chairman of Oh Wow’s board of directors, said. “This is a place where we can experiment. This is a place where we can explore, and teaching our youngest generation, our youngest citizens, that’s a thing that is so crucially important, and that’s kind of priceless to a region.”

In addition, Oh Wow has provided a place for kids to “plug in and play” with the technologies that are going to play an increasing role in the Mahoning Valley, he said.

The expansion represents one of two ways that Oh Wow is committing to creating new experiences for students in the STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – disciplines, Logan said. Oh Wow’s team did an analysis of the fastest growing industries – biotechnology, smart mobility, engineering, energy, computer science and advanced manufacturing – and is exploring ways to introduce these concepts to elementary school students so they will continue to come to Oh Wow for educational experiences.

“So we find ways to make your learning fun, and you happen to learn by accident,” he said.

During the program, Oh Wow presented awards to individuals and organizations that have played a key role in the science center’s history. The Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to former Valley residents Bruce and Carol Sherman, who were early supporters of the museum.  

“We were always very tired of the woe-is-me type attitude, and we wanted to change that, to make the Youngstown area a place to be proud of,” Bruce Sherman said in a video message.

Though they now live in Florida, the retired local business owners continue to talk with pride about Youngstown, he said. They appreciate the recognition they’ve received for their efforts over the years but say that wasn’t the reason for their efforts.

“We do it because it’s your responsibility to help make the world a better place,” he said. “It’s time for the next group of people to step up and make it even better.”

Also recognized was Suzanne Barbati, who was hired to guide the children’s museum transition to a science center and served for the majority of Oh Wow’s existence as its executive director and transitioned to its director of planned giving before retiring in February.

“Suzanne has had a profound impact on this city. Oh Wow is an anchor to our downtown. It’s an amazing resource and is something that I know many people take for granted in our community,” Tim Petrey, Oh Wow board treasurer, said. “The sheer quantity of people that are impacted as a result of what has been built down here in downtown Youngstown is quite mind blowing.”

Barbati, who was recognized with a standing ovation, deflected credit for what Oh Wow achieved during her tenure.  

“When you say what did I accomplish, I really accomplished working with all of these other fantastic people – board members, staff, volunteers, donors, investors, people who care about our community,” she said.

“I can’t wait to see what happens,” she added.

In back are, from left, Nils Johnson, Oh Wow board secretary; David Jones and Marvin Logan Jr., executive director. In front is Gloria Jones. The Jones family – Gloria, her late husband, Roger, and son David – were presented an award during Wednesday’s event.

An award also was presented to Oh Wow’s namesake, the Jones family – the late Roger Jones; his wife, Gloria; and their son, David. The family’s philanthropy on behalf of Oh Wow included the initial $50,000 in seed money in 2008, $250,000 the following year for the capital campaign to fund the relocation to the McCrory Building and a $1 million endowment in 2016. That support has continued through the company Roger and Gloria Jones founded, Fireline, which has provided engineering assistance for exhibit development.

“We would not be here tonight if it were not for Roger, Gloria and David,” Nils Johnson, board secretary, said.

“We are honored very deeply for this award, to know that we’ve been able to help the community by establishing Oh Wow, to seeing it grow to where it is today, and knowing that the future of Oh Wow is very bright,” David Jones, accompanying his mother, said.

State Sen. Michael Rulli of Salem, R-33rd, was recognized for his role in helping secure $800,000 in state capital funds over the past two capital improvement budget cycles for Oh Wow but was not able to attend, Chuck George, immediate past president of Oh Wow’s board, said.

Oh Wow representatives were advised not to ask for too much, but Rulli told them to “put in for what you need” and he would do what he could to help secure the funding, George recalled.  

Gov. Mike DeWine accepted via a video message the Innovation Champion Award on behalf of the state’s Innovation Ohio program.  

“Innovative companies are calling Ohio home,” he said, pointing to last year’s announcement that Intel would site a new $20 billion chip manufacturing campus in the state as well as announcements by major automobile manufacturers to add plants in the state.

“All of these companies need knowledgeable, skilled employees, and so we encourage today’s students to study hard and prepare because we’re going to need each and every one of you,” he added.

Logan also took the opportunity to single out two longtime employees for recognition: director of operations Colleen Ruby and senior edutainer Elainie Huncik.  

Oh Wow, which will celebrate its 12th birthday this weekend, has evolved from “a toddler’s play area” in its earlier incarnation as the Children’s Museum of the Valley to “the largest supplemental STEM education organization in the Mahoning Valley,” Logan said. But it is now at a “critical juncture,” as is Ohio, where about $1.2 trillion in economic and community development projects that “are in one way, shape or form” related to careers in the STEM fields are taking place.

He also shared some of the rationale behind attempting to expand Oh Wow’s reach beyond its current target audience. About 77% of young girls express interest in STEM learning while in middle school, but less than 11% of those girls end up in STEM careers after high school, he said. In addition, fewer than 25% of students of color from low-income or rural communities have access to high-quality STEM programs.

“As a son of the Valley and the son of a UAW worker and a GM retiree, I know all too well what happens when we don’t have a society that is educated and nimble and provided with opportunity,” he said. “Oh Wow is a place to be able to drive impact and STEM education like never before.”

Pictured at top: From left are Tim Petrey, Oh Wow board treasurer; Suzanne Barbati, former executive director of Oh Wow; and Marvin Logan Jr., current executive director.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.