Oh Wow! Prepares to Return After Renovations, Pandemic

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – For the first time in more than a year, the main floor of Oh Wow! The Roger & Gloria Jones Children’s Center for Science & Technology was abuzz with activity Tuesday afternoon. 

A handful of students from the Potential Development School for Students with Autism was serving as the first set of testers for the renovated museum as it prepares to officially reopen May 15. 

“It’s just so nice to see them being kids again,” said Megan Sankey, marketing and special events assistant at Potential Development. “They are having so much fun.” 

The past year has been especially difficult for the school’s students because of their need for interaction with others to learn, she said. 

The noise they made as they played and learned at Oh Wow’s exhibits, which all focus on the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math – was music to Suzanne Barbati’s ears.

“We are so excited to have people back in the museum … to be able to just hear the laughter, hear the noise,” Oh Wow’s president and executive director said. “It’s been so quiet – really quiet.”

Some 250 people already are scheduled to visit Oh Wow over the next week and a half to try out the exhibits and test its new protocols in advance of a May 15 reopening and celebration of its 10th anniversary, said Colleen Ruby, director of visitor services. 

“We’re all about the scientific process of inquiry,” Barbati said. “Rather than open our doors on May 15 and be surprised by a situation that we were not prepared for, we are going to open now and we have a number of spots available if people would like to come in free of charge and give us their opinion on how we’re doing.”

The reopening follows a $600,000 renovation that includes new exhibits and a reorientation of its main entrance to Market Street from West Federal Street that will improve safety for visitors as they enter the museum and provide better visibility. 

The renovation of the McCrory Building – which Oh Wow purchased in 2019 – had already been planned when the coronavirus pandemic forced Oh Wow to close its doors.  

Though some installation work, painting and other items are still to be completed, the renovation project – guided by CambridgeSeven Associates, Boston – is ahead of schedule and will be finished by the reopening. 

Click here to watch ‘3 Minutes With’ featuring Suzanne Barbati

“The cool thing is we worked with people across the United States,” Barbati said. Oh Wow raised more than $2 million to support purchase and renovation of the McCrory Building, as well as the creation of an endowment to provide funds to meet future needs.  

Features added to the main floor are a microelectronics area that will occupy what was previously the welcome desk, a sensory sensitive room and “House of Shine,” an exhibit focusing on mental health. 

The microelectronics area is the result of a collaboration involving Youngstown State University, Wright State University and the U.S. Air Force. Its goal is to help visitors understand the technology and its uses, as well as to help them see a future in the field, “not just in terms of industry and innovation but in terms of career possibilities,” Barbati said.

Among the new exhibits at Oh Wow! will be one focused on microelectronics, teaching visitors about how the technology works and the careers available in the field.

Among the activities in the space are taking a computer apart, putting together a basic circuit, robotics and coding, said Ralf Urbach, director of education, more popularly known as “Mr. Ralf.”   

Oh Wow received funding from the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services for the “I Shine” wall, which is the first satellite of the House of Shine museum in Grapevine, Texas. The intent of the exhibit is to teach visitors about mental health and self-understanding. 

“The whole idea of Shine is that each of us have strengths, hobbies, interests and irritants … and then needs and experiences, understanding what those are for each of us and understanding that it’s important that you share those gifts that you have and the person you are with the community,” Barbati said. An exhibit that addresses mental health needs is particularly important now, because of how anxiety levels increased during the pandemic.  

Despite the renovation, nearly all of Oh Wow’s familiar exhibits remain, including the Engineering Zone, Amazing Airwaves, the hurricane chamber, television studio and Canterbury Arch. Only a section of the water table was “retired” temporarily, Barbati said. 

Also as part of the project, the offices formerly located in the building’s lower level moved to the second floor, leading to the relocation of the InspireWorks makerspace to another section of the basement level and creating a new production space for the museum’s STEM Sak bundles.

The program was created early on in the pandemic to continue the museum’s educational offerings while kids were learning remotely. Since March 2020, Oh Wow has distributed 75,000 STEM Saks. 

“We’re selling them as far away as California and Hawaii,” Barbati said.  

In addition to welcoming visitors once again, Barbati said she is looking forward to staging an in-person Science of Brewing following last year’s virtual event. 

Long-term plans include creation of a bus pull off in front of the new main entrance as part of the Smart2 Network project downtown, Barbati said. That likely will come about in the next year or two, she said. 

Oh Wow’s visitor services team was tasked with developing the protocols that staff and visitors would have to adhere to, as well as working on getting the online ticketing system up and running and updating the website with pertinent information for visitors, Ruby said.  

“We’re really looking forward to being able to welcome everybody back once this place is finally put back together,” she said. 

Both the morning and afternoon sessions on the anniversary-reopening date are at capacity, Ruby reported.   

After May 15, Oh Wow will be open Thursday through Sunday, with sessions in the morning and afternoon. Barbati is urging visitors to register in advance to make sure they can get in, given the limit to 25% of the museum’s normal capacity under current COVID-19 protocols. 

Pictured: Suzanne Barbati, executive director of Oh Wow, stands in front of the science museum’s new “I Shine” exhibit, focused on mental health awareness.

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