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Tonya Matthews, president and CEO of the Michigan Science Center, has a doctorate in biomedical engineering from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. But her real passion is little kids.

Matthews, who took over the science center in October 2013, is a close observer of how children learn, well-schooled in the gulf that separates what works for little boys and what works for most little girls.

The goal for each, however, is exactly the same — “creating the ‘Wow!’ factor,” in her words, that kids can carry from the science center to propel them back in the classroom.

“Let me be frank,” says Matthews with an amused smile, “we know how to motivate boys. If there’s competition, someone to beat and a prize at the end, they’re really interested. Some young ladies are motivated by that strategy, but many of them are not.”

Girls, she suggests, typically need to know the “why,” particularly with the so-called S.T.E.M. fields — science, technology, engineering and math.

“Girls really want to know, ‘What is this going to do for me? For the world?’ ” Matthews says. “Certain S.T.E.M. fields do very well in recruiting girls — medicine in particular. It’s very easy to figure out what that does: You fix people.”

But building a case for higher math, to take just one example, can be a challenge.

“And talking about job security,” Matthews adds, “really isn’t the best strategy with a 10 year old.”

Naturally the Michigan Science Center, with an operating budget of about $5 million, serves boys and girls with equal enthusiasm. The center partners with the West Bloomfield and Detroit public schools systems, aligning its programming to mesh with their curricula.

This year, every single DPS seventh-grader will visit the center for programs — all 3,000-plus.

“Giving S.T.E.M. support across an entire grade is one way of leveling the playing field,” Matthews says, that can give a leg up to kids who might need the added dazzle of the museum experience to turbocharge their interest.

“DPS is very thankful to have Dr. Matthew as a partner,” says Alycia Meriweather, executive director for the district’s Office of Curriculum and head of the Detroit Mathematics and Science Center. “She thinks outside the box.”

Working all the angles to hook kids as young as 10 on science wasn’t part of Matthews’ to-do list in graduate school. She assumed she’d become a college professor but fell into museum work almost by accident when the Maryland Science Center recruited science graduate students to interact with visitors.

Matthews ended up managing the program, but initially saw it as a temporary gig until she landed a real job. Once surrounded by children, she realized: “I love this.”

Her first big job was at the Cincinnati Museum Center, where she stayed six years, rising to vice president in charge of three museums and three research centers. Then the Michigan Science Center, successor to the Detroit Science Center that folded in 2011 with debts of $6.1 million, came calling.

And Matthews jumped.

It’s one of the things the director of a S.T.E.M. program at Wayne State University for girls, GO-GIRL (Gaining Options — Girls Investigate Real Life), Sally Kay Roberts likes about her.

“She came to Detroit with purpose,” Roberts says. “Detroit didn’t pick her, she picked Detroit. And she embodies everything we in S.T.E.M. are looking for. She just has a vibrance.”

And she’s taking dead aim at elementary and junior-high girls with the “STEMinista” project, which is still in the planning stages.

“Our targets are fourth- through eighth-grade girls,” Matthews says, “because research says that’s when there’s the biggest drop-off in interest and confidence in science and math. That’s true even with boys,” she adds, “but the rate of disinterest among girls is much higher.”

The STEMinista program aims to create cool programs at the science center geared to girls’ interests and to provide a safe space where they can explore. Children will be monitored over the long term to measure the program’s effectiveness.

But STEMinista’s third leg is perhaps the most important — creating a database of local women working in S.T.E.M. fields who can act as role models and mentors for young girls.

“The program’s not about excluding boys,” Matthews says. “It’s about giving girls space and countering the messages they get” that discourage these interests.

“The not-so-good news,” she says, “is that there still exists biases and misconceptions about what girls are capable of. So part of that spark and ‘wow’ factor I talked about may be necessary to get some girls through the bias.”

Even at an elite graduate school, Matthews encountered this sort of skepticism with at least one professor, until her test scores convinced him she was a fully competent student worthy of his attention.

“I am relentless and have a bit of an attitude problem,” Matthews says. “That’s how I got through. But the other girl in that class didn’t.”

You can’t just try to eliminate such bias, Matthews suggests. “You also have to prepare girls for them, because they’re still going to occur.”

mhodges@detroitnews.com

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Tonya Matthews

Job: President and CEO, Michigan Science Center, Detroit

Age: 40

Previous job: Vice President of Museums, Cincinnati Museum Center

Education: Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering, Johns Hopkins University; Bachelor of Arts, Duke University

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