Teaching children ‘how to think, not what to think’

Suzanne Barbati, a YSU alumna, is pictured in Youngstown's OH WOW! children's museum.

Suzanne Barbati

Suzanne Barbati, ’95

For decades, McCrory’s five-and-dime store attracted families to downtown Youngtown for lunch-counter treats and thrifty shopping. Now its former retail space is being renovated into a different kind of attraction for families – a children’s science and technology center – and YSU alumna Suzanne Barbati is in charge of the transformation.

Barbati is executive director of OH WOW!, the Roger and Gloria Jones Children’s Center for Science & Technology, set to open May 12 in its new home at 11 W Federal St. The space had been vacant since McCrory’s shut its store there 18 years ago. “It’s the perfect space,” said Barbati, describing the high ceilings and 16,000 square feet of exhibit space on two floors.

The center was in the midst of a major transition when she signed on as its top administrator in March 2009. Formerly known as the Children’s Museum of the Valley, its governing board renamed the facility in 2008 to reflect a stronger emphasis on science and technology and was looking to move it from its East Boardman Street location to a larger space.

In December 2009, the East Boardman Street center was closed as work began at the new location, a site two times bigger than the first. YSU’s College of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics is a collaborating partner; corporate supporters include Fireline Inc. and its owners Roger and Gloria Jones, First National Bank of Pennsylvania, WFMJ-TV, and P&S Equities.

The capital campaign chaired by YSU alumnus Bruce Sherman has raised more than $1.5 million in local gifts from individuals, corporations and foundations that support the mission of OH WOW!, and Barbati said the museum is on track for its spring opening. In December, she accepted delivery of a 10-foot hurricane simulator and a 64-foot water exhibition that will be among the 25 interactive “Wow Zone” attractions.

“We’ll have a magnet wall, a 15-foot-tall laser guitar, a 15-foot Lego table. Everything is designed to encourage kids to experiment,” Barbati said. “We want to teach kids how to think, not what to think.”

Planners expect the center to attract 25,000 to 30,000 people a year to downtown Youngstown, including student groups as well as private parties, professional development sessions for teachers and corporate events.

Barbati believes her diverse career path has prepared her well for the challenge of developing and directing the OH WOW! Center. She was a non-traditional student and a mother of two school-aged children when she completed her bachelor’s degree at YSU in 1995. Her major was conflict studies education, an individualized curriculum combining criminal justice, education and psychology courses.

In the years that followed, she served as a consultant for the Ohio Commission on Dispute Resolution, working with school districts across Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, and helped to establish Mahoning Valley Dispute Resolution Services. She managed and implemented a Youngstown City Schools grant for the Neil Kennedy Recovery Clinic, served as a grant writer for Mahoning County and then started her own home-based grant writing business.

Barbati lives in Boardman with her husband Bill Florig, also a YSU alumnus. She loves hiking the trails at Mill Creek Park, which is within walking distance of her home, and vacationing at the family’s cottage on Lake Erie.

The couple’s son, Anthony Florig, started his college career at YSU but graduated from Ohio State University. Their daughter, Kate Komlanc, a 2008 YSU alumna employed as a school psychologist in Mahoning County, was the most recent of four generations of women to graduate from YSU. Barbati’s grandmother, Lucile Wolcott Baldwin, graduated from Youngstown College in the 1950s, and her mother, Barbara Barbati Christoff, earned a degree in 1968.

(Previously published in YSU Magazine, Winter 2011)