“When I think of STEM in our community, I think of Tom Burnworth.” That’s how an education professor at the University of Toledo describes the recent winner of the Ohio STEM Advocate of 2021 Award. Burnworth is executive director of the Sylvania STEM Center in suburban Toledo. And in that role, he leads a “robust STEM center that affords children across (northwest) Ohio opportunities to learn to program, problem solve, innovate, collaborate and present their ideas,” writes Professor Ruslan Slutsky in a letter supporting Burnworth’s nomination for the honor. The award, from the Ohio STEM Learning Network, recognizes an Ohioan who has demonstrated a passion for STEM education through public advocacy and participation in leadership organizations that advance STEM for all. To find out more about how Burnworth meets these criteria through his work at the Sylvania STEM Center, we asked him for details:
Q: Tell us about the Sylvania STEM Center – its creation, its mission and how it accomplishes this mission.
A: The mission of the Sylvania STEM Center (SSC) is to inspire young people to become science and technology leaders by engaging them in exciting STEM-based activities, in and out of the classroom
Originally, we chose to initiate a couple of STEM teams at the local elementary school, and from there it grew organically. As each elementary school asked to form a STEM team, we decided to rent a space that would house these teams.
As the elementary students grew older, they matriculated to the more sophisticated teams, and this eventually led our programming to have 42 STEM teams supported at the SSC. We recognized that many of these youth craved more STEM experiences, so we incorporated workshops, included STEM experts in the field for training and built partnerships with other organizations.
Q: Now tell us about your educational and work background before joining the SSC and why you left this work to become the center’s executive director. What are your tasks as executive director?
A: My experience has always been in the STEM field. Prior to SSC, I worked for the Lucas County Engineer’s Office as a construction inspector. I have always been curious about everything and have had a knack for problem-solving.
When the SSC programs became too much for just volunteer coordinators, I had to make the leap if we were truly going to expand. I left the Lucas County Engineer’s Office and was hired as the SSC’s executive director.
As the executive director, I do a little of everything. I’m the point of contact for programming and outside community contacts, and I coach several of the STEM teams, modeling what we expect from other coaches to maximize the experiences that students could have.
Q: Who does the center serve? What programs, camps, and workshops does the center offer? What about competitions? Why are all of these activities important for students?
A: Currently, the center has in-house programming as well as in-school and outreach programs. We have recently contracted with Sylvania Schools to provide grades 1-5 with STEM Engineering in the Classroom for all seven elementary buildings.
We already have programs at West Side Montessori School, Ottawa Hills Local Schools and Whiteford Agricultural Schools. This has inspired much more youth to be fascinated with STEM and problem-solving in general.
We offer a variety of STEM opportunities:
- FIRST teams: Students can join a FIRST team that is developmentally appropriate for them, including FIRST LEGO League Explore (grades 1-3); FIRST LEGO League Challenge (grades 4-8); FIRST Tech Challenge (grades 7-12); and FIRST Robotics Competition (grades 9-12).
- Workshops: “Cookies and CAD,” Java programming, plus we create workshops to fill a need.
- Outreach: We hold camps at Ottawa Hills Elementary and West Side Montessori schools.
- In-school programs: We teach Engineering in the Classroom at three school districts.
Q: Does the SSC receive any assistance from the local business community?
A: The SSC is a 501(c)(3), and like most non-profits we have a variety of sponsors and donors. We are really lucky that so many individuals and businesses chose to give not only monetarily but also in-kind to the SSC.
Most of our mentors, coaches and guest speakers are in professional STEM fields, and this has been a true asset to our programming. Students can connect with professionals, and the adults who work with our young people can see their curiosity in action!
Our programs are fee-based, and our operating expenses are paid through those fees. We also apply for program-specific grants that help fund our robotics programs/teams.
Q: Give us examples of programs/efforts at the center that you think have been the most successful and why.
A: This is a tough question because we are always evolving and growing. We can’t seem to maintain a space before we need a bigger one. I believe our biggest asset is the community engagement from our mentors and volunteers. Once someone is involved with our programs, they tend to stick around. They believe in what we are doing and see the impact it has on our youth.
Q: How has the SSC advocated for STEM for all?
A: We have always advocated that we do not want our programs to be for the “haves” vs. the “have nots.” We work hard to find funding for those who are financially challenged. I am happy to say that we have never had to turn a child away. We have a request form for families to complete if they need financial assistance, and we find a way to cover the costs.
Q: How did the pandemic affect your programs?
A: The pandemic cut our program sizes to about a third of what they were normally, but we were able to adjust and find ways to adapt. This year we are working on bringing everyone back, but it’s going to take some time.
Q: What projects are on the drawing board at the center?
A: Currently we are hiring as we’ve expanded our Engineering in the Classroom programs. We are also working with a local nonprofit about merging the Sylvania STEM Center, Sylvania Arts and the Sylvania Recreation District to create a community center that provides a STEAM center and Makerspace.
Q: What advice would you give your fellow STEM educators?
A: The process is so much more important than the product, and stay focused on the ultimate goal in STEM – curiosity! If we help inspire students to be problem-solvers, then we have fostered creativity and innovation, no matter what field a student pursues.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about your work or the Sylvania STEM Center?
A: I can’t wait to see what we will look like in five years.