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Tonya Matthews, President and CEO of the Michigan Science Center

At the helm of a longtime cultural institution, Matthews remains more determined than ever to bring Detroit’s kids to the forefront of the progressing STEM conversation.

While Tonya Matthews’ official title is the Michigan Science Center’s chief executive officer, she prefers the title of chief curiosity officer. She does the usual CEO duties like setting visions and building relationships for the institution, but Matthews says she also gets the chance to just play.

“I get out and about and eavesdrop on the community to find out what’s going on – what are the big challenges, the big aspirations – and figure out what the science center has to offer in those conversations.”

Oftentimes you can find Matthews on the science center’s floor, observing and learning more about the visitors. She recalls one instance when she saw a group of kids interacting in the Kidstruction exhibit, an area packed full large blocks, Legos, K’Nex and other building materials that allows kids to experiment with engineering and design. In this area, Matthews says, they really encourage the kids to use their imagination and build what they want.

“One day I came down there to see that the kids had taken us absolutely literally,” Matthews says. “They used the signage, they used the chairs that were meant for sitting in, they used the cone that we have to rope off the area. It was one of the most rewarding moments, because the kids playing had done something that I had never thought of.”

Though the Michigan Science Center is located in Detroit, the institution still upholds a commitment to servicing the entire state of Michigan – something Matthews says was the biggest challenge handed to her when she assumed her role in 2013.

“We talk a lot about diversity, but the state of Michigan is really diverse,” Matthews says. “From one community to the next, there are different personalities, different motivations and different needs.”

One of the center’s signature programs is its statewide traveling science program, an experience it now takes to 42 counties across the Mitten, including the Upper Peninsula.

“It is our primary way of serving the state. That program originated out of a service model for Detroit’s public schools,” Matthews says. “When DPS and our neighboring school districts were challenged by the cost of busing, the science center was challenged with figuring out how to continue to serve them. It was through refining and growing that program that, at some point, we realized if we put more gas in the truck that we could go other places.”

As careers begin to evolve and the demand for STEM professionals continues to increase, Matthews is dedicated to keeping Detroit a part of the conversation.

“The world is changing,” Matthews says. “Science, technology, engineering and math are going to be a part of every career, so we need to make sure that our children are just as prepared for the next generation as any other community in the world. We intend to be leaders, and the children of Detroit deserve to be a part of that leadership.”

Not Just for Kids!

The Michigan Science Center aims to engage everyone in the community with its monthly After Dark events for ages 21-plus. Grab a drink and engage in some hands-on science activities. Tickets are $15, and this month’s event (with a time travel theme) takes place March 16. More at mi-sci.org.

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