Five Qs: Tonya Matthews of the Michigan Science Center

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Tonya Matthews, president and CEO of the Michigan Science Center, located at the site of the former Detroit Science Center, spoke with DBusiness Daily News about getting students excited about STEM and why Detroit could possibly be a game changer in moving the industries forward.

1. DDN: How would you rate Detroit students’ performance in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics or STEM?

TM: By some measures, we struggle to hit 50 percent proficiency for our students. If you measure interest, it’s even lower. But here’s the good news: STEM has all of the fun jobs, the cool jobs. And that’s part of the messaging that we bring. There are studies that show that a child’s interest in a career is a better predictor than their grades early on. So we’re not just talking about going after the straight-A students or the ones who are naturally good at math. Kids excel in things that excite them, so we serve as a partner to parents, teachers, and future employers by getting kids really excited about the possibility of doing something in these fields.

2. DDN: Why is it important that the Michigan Science Center be located in Detroit?

TM: Everyone has been talking about the lack of diversity in the stem fields, in technology in particular. And as much as we all care about that, I think there are few communities in the country that could really make a difference in diversifying the pipeline, and I think that Detroit is one of those places. Because of where we are, because of what we do in Detroit and the state of Michigan, and also because of who lives here. We actually have the populations that can diversify the STEM pipeline. Detroit could be the game changer, so we’re developing an initiative around underrepresented minorities right now.

3. DDN: What are you doing to engage the city’s neighborhoods?

TM: We do a couple of things. One is we have a scholarship program that helps get students at underserved schools into the science center. We also have a traveling science program that often participates in neighborhood festivals. We’re using those relationships to determine what it’s going to take for the center to have a real presence inside of the neighborhoods.

4. DDN: What’s involved in the traveling science program?

TM: The program is actually modeled after our hands-on interactive experiences, so we can either set up in a classroom or an auditorium space. These are small table-top or room size exhibits where the kids actually get to put their hands on it and do things — everything from roller coaster design to flying airplanes to learning about sounds and (playing) musical instruments. To date, (the traveling program) has served over 50,000 children and families outside of our building right here in Detroit and all the way up to the Upper Peninsula.

5. DDN: Are you doing anything to celebrate the museum’s second anniversary?

TM: We’ve got two big things. One is we’re trying to raise $20,000 by the end of this year to get 2,000 student scholarships to visit the science center. And since I know we’re going to hit that goal, we’ll have a new exhibit for them starting right after holiday break: the Eat Well, Play Well exhibit, which is in English and Spanish. It will take about health and wellness and medical careers. We’re definitively going to be talking a little bit about food technology. This is one of the easier things to translate across all age groups. For instance, I’ve got the 12 years olds on the treadmill counting how many heartbeats they can get to, while the 22 year olds will be learning about the science of wine and beer on the taste buds.

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