Oh Wow Celebrates STEM, Looks to the Future
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Oh Wow! The Roger & Gloria Jones Children’s Center for Science & Technology will open a new space with expanded opportunities for students and families to explore March 1, officials with the science center said.
The announcements of the Innovation Wing’s opening, an app challenge in conjunction with Apple and a new event connecting athletics and science were among the topics discussed at Oh Wow’s annual meeting Thursday.
The event, which was held at the Tyler History Center downtown, also featured the introduction of new leadership and new members for Oh Wow’s board and a panel discussion focusing on broadening diversity in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“Oh Wow has done plenty over the past 10-plus years, and it isn’t enough to service the need that our community has,” said Marvin Logan, Oh Wow’s executive director. “Unless we continue bringing new voices to the forefront, gaining more support, serving more children, we’re at a terrible loss.”
The Innovation Wing, which will occupy the second floor of the McCrory Building, which Oh Wow purchased four years ago, will offer a digital collaboration lab, mixed-reality classroom, 3D printing lab and microelectronics and robotics lab, said Ellie Platt, owner of Platt Insurance in Howland and the new chairwoman of Oh Wow’s board of directors.
Logan, who presented Oh Wow’s 2023 Impact Report, outlined the center’s progress over the past year and outlined upcoming economic opportunities for those versed in the STEM disciplines but also warned of the potential threats to capitalizing on those opportunities.
In 2023, Oh Wow provided more than 250,000 hours of science education, Logan said. More than 75% of students who participate in Oh Wow programs report having “a positive learning outcome,” meaning they know more than when they started. Of those students, 90% become more interested in STEM. That’s important because metrics show that as early as third grade, students begin to lose interest in STEM learning, careers and activities.
The need to encourage more people to enter the STEM fields grows as proficiencies in those fields decline, he warned. Projections show there will be more than 350,000 STEM jobs in Ohio in the next five years. Since 2019, math proficiency for students in fourth and eighth grades has dropped 9%, and nearly a third of students in those grades perform below proficient in science, two factors that put the local workforce at “incredible risk,” he said.
“Ohio currently has over $1 trillion in tech manufacturing, innovation and design projects that are going on across the state,” he said. “Over $2 billion of that is happening right here in the Mahoning Valley.”
The Valley is “really on the cusp of so much economic development, specifically around STEM jobs and tech jobs, and we really see Oh Wow as being a critical partner in that and helping prepare our community and our kids to be ready for those jobs,” Platt said.
Platt also reflected on the importance of Oh Wow to her personally and to the community. As the mother of a now-teenage son, it was “important as a family to have Oh Wow,” and the center is an “anchor organization” that brings families downtown every day, contributing to downtown’s revitalization.
In addition to the Innovation Wing, Oh Wow has another project on tap for 2024, an outside sustainability park, “which we’re hoping to have completed sometime next year as well, Logan said.
Other initiatives for 2024 include an app challenge in conjunction with global technology giant Apple and a new event, Sports for STEM, which will examine the intersection between sports and the STEM fields.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work with a team of national leaders as a part of the community education initiative that has done some incredible work across the country. So being able to bring some of that flavor to the Valley is something that we’re really excited about,” Logan said regarding the app challenge.
Logan said that he and one of his board members, Karrington Griffin, a former sports rival, concocted the idea of using their connections as former athletes to “shed a light on STEM” by bringing together prominent athletes with local connections to participate in a charity athletic event.
In addition to introducing Platt as chairwoman, several new board members were introduced at the meeting. Those included Rick Stockburger of Brite Energy Innovators, Amber Bodrick of QuickMed Urgent Care, Josh Prest of Prest Strategies, Christopher Colon of the Ohio Environmental Council, Anthony Trevena of the Western Reserve Port Authority and Dominic Brown of Ultium Cells.
“They come with a ton of passion and energy with ideas of things they can do,” Logan said.
“We have a ton of new board members and a record amount of interest in participating and supporting Oh Wow,” said Wiley Runnestrand, vice president of GreenBoard IT in Warren and outgoing chairman of Oh Wow’s board.
Much of the annual meeting focused on broadening participation in the STEM fields by individuals currently underrepresented in them, including women and minorities. It included an hourlong panel moderated by Elainie Huncik, program coordinator-outreach for Oh Wow.
Huncik noted that women possessing baccalaureate degrees in STEM fields earn the same as men with associate degrees, and minorities are underrepresented in 19 of the top 20 earning populations in northeastern Ohio. Black and Hispanic-Latino populations make up less than 10% of the STEM workforce, and women make up just one-third.
In addition, nearly half of the United States doesn’t have access to high-quality STEM programs, while nearly two-thirds of jobs that will be created in 2030 will require basic literacy in science, technology and math.
Among the topics addressed at the panel was storytelling as a means to get the message out about people seeing themselves in STEM fields.
“Stories are how humans process information. That’s how we make emotional connections to people, to brands,” said Steve Cross, CEO of iSynergy. “That’s how we make decisions. You’re more connected to people and brands, as we know more about them and hear their story, you’re more invested.”
Sarah Lowry, senior director of community impact for the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley, recalled that she had been interested in science and even wanted to be an astronaut but lost interest like many young girls, who traditionally have not been encouraged to go into the STEM fields.
“If there are other young people who have that curiosity and have that spark, where they want to learn how things work, and they want to have an understanding about something related to STEM education and STEM careers, they need to see those careers as possible for that. They need to see themselves in the people that are representing those various careers,” she said.
“That representation … is really important, and storytelling helps people to see things differently, helps them to see and understand that they have a role to play that maybe they didn’t see themselves.”
Cross also pointed to the value of spotlighting stories of people traditionally underrepresented in STEM, such as the film “Hidden Figures,” about the critical role Black female mathematicians working for NASA played in the early days of the space program.
“It’s important for everybody to see in these careers, these opportunities are not just reserved for or accessible to one group, and that there is a very significant benefit to everybody to make these opportunities and careers available,” he said. “It’s everyone’s responsibility to create, inspire and to tell children that to keep on dreaming.”
Lowry also highlighted the role being played in inspiring middle school students by the Summer Manufacturing Institute, a program launched a decade ago in Youngstown by U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, for whom she previously worked.
“It engages young people when they’re still young and curious,” and before girls are discouraged from entering STEM, she said. “It really inspires fourth graders to dream, and that curiosity is really at the center of STEM in manufacturing and creating something. You’re innovating something; you’re solving a problem. And it creates those opportunities for young people who may not otherwise have that safe kind of environment to really dream, explore and interact with others.”
Pictured at top: Ellie Platt, left, owner of Platt Insurance and the new chairwoman of Oh Wow’s board of directors, and Marvin Logan, Oh Wow’s executive director.
Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.