Picking Up STEAM

Mazza Museum Addition to Support Interdisciplinary Learning

by Joy Brown

Magical” is the word Judith Conda uses to describe her first visit to University of Findlay’s Mazza Museum. The trip was happenstance, and she was immediately captivated by the 36-year-old museum, which houses the largest and most diverse collection of original picture book art in the world.

Since that visit, Judith and her husband, Joseph Conda’s involvement has evolved from admiration to substantial fiscal support that is making possible a transformative addition to the Mazza Museum. The Joseph and Judith Conda STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics/medicine) Education Center, to be built in 2020, will serve regional students in grades K-12, along with other community members who will benefit from such holistic, liberal programming.

The combination of academic disciplines that the center will enable is a natural and necessary educational endeavor, the Perrysburg couple believe. When they began talks with Museum and University leaders about how best they could help, this project, already being planned, aligned with their visions and goals regarding sustainable academic excellence, Judith said.

The center will be “the perfect intertwining of invention, illustration, engineering, math, and art” said Judith. “The connection, I think, is extremely important.”

“Any art, and in our case, art from picture books, is an integral part of STEM learning,” said Museum Director Ben Sapp. “STEAM education with the art is about applying creative thinking to STEM projects, and igniting students’ imaginations and creativity. Throughout this process, we will be looking for new and innovative ways to find where art naturally fits into the science, the technology, and the math.”

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As an educator for 34 years, teaching mostly special education, Judith is keenly aware of the impact that literacy, combined with art, has on children. But it wasn’t until her Museum visit that she began to “appreciate the importance of illustration,” she said. Her passion for the Museum’s literacy mission first resulted in the couple’s sponsoring of the Tales for Tots program, a regular story time offering tailored for toddlers and preschoolers.

Six Museum galleries exhibit more than 300 works of art at any given time. The works are regularly rotated and feature different themes. More than 13,000 pieces of artwork from picture books are included in the entire collection.

Now, with the couple serving as lead donors, the 4,000-square-foot, $1.5 million Conda STEAM Education Center will position the Museum as one of the first in the nation to blend art activities with hard sciences learning. Illustrations, along with the physicality involved with their creation, will inform the center’s hands-on lessons, artist lectures, and other offerings. For instance, the Museum’s paper engineering collection will be used to provide physics lessons, and the science of paint mixing and multimedia incorporation will be addressed. The center, in turn, will also rely upon nearby campus facilities, faculty, and staff, such as the Newhard Planetarium and Frost Science Center.

Inspired by the golden ratio, a mathematical equation commonly found in nature, the center is being designed to encourage and inspire with its overall shape and functionality. Learning stations, colors, and space considerations will maximize hands-on academic experiences.

The Condas think the Center has the potential to become a world-renowned learning lab, and Museum and University officials concur. “The hope is that every day will bring new ideas on how we can use this space as a rich resource for all who use it,” said Sapp. “It will be ever-changing in a world of STEAM education with the help of our professors, our public schools, and the many wonderful volunteers in our community.”

Funders and planners intend for the center to provide lessons that last a lifetime. This sustainability outlook is in keeping with the Conda’s giving philosophy.

“Over the last three years we’ve really begun to think about our philanthropy in a different way,” explained Joseph Conda, who is retired from Owens-Illinois where he served as president of the Healthcare Packing Company and was a corporate officer. “We want it to be more of an investment versus what they call ‘opportunity.’ We ask ourselves, ‘How can we be more productive in how we invest our money?’ We now look at the overarching benefit to the community and how many lives we can touch.”

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The Conda’s main giving interests have always focused on literacy and youth, which makes the Mazza Museum addition a natural fit. The center will also align with the couple’s goal of “helping people navigate their environment,” Judith said, noting everyone of all abilities will benefit. “It’s not necessarily just the printed word or the painting that will matter, but the way children can use their world” to make sense of it and assist others along the way, she said. “There are different ways to do that, and everyone does it differently. Everyone is differently abled, and the STEAM concept touches on that,” she continued.

As such, Joseph explained the center’s strengths will lie with its ability to teach children valuable critical thinking skills, inspire entrepreneurial ideas, and enable collaboration. When recalling a specific professional mentor, Joseph said the individual “pushed you so that you became more than you ever thought you could be. That’s the power of this center.”

The Museum project, Joseph said, is also appealing because there are clear objectives, visioning, accountability, and sustainability. “I believe that philanthropy needs to not be so much about ‘can you give money for this or that.’ It has to have a purpose.”

Having compassionate, committed, and organized leaders also doesn’t hurt when it comes to seeking assistance for such a construction project, Joseph maintained. “The thing that pushed me over to support this was the trust and confidence I have in the leaders here,” he said, naming University President Katherine Fell, Ph.D., Vice President of University Advancement, Marcia Sloan Latta, Ed.D., and Museum Director Ben Sapp. “What they’re engaging in is not an easy thing. Execution is going to be key. But they have the vision to buy into it.”

As a result, the Condas are so committed to the project and its mission that they are encouraging, and even challenging, others in their philanthropic circle within the Toledo, Ohio area to invest too. Several were invited to the center’s April announcement, at which architectural renderings were unveiled.

“We like to see things that are positive happening, and we like to give back,” concluded Joseph. He and Judith are hoping others feel the same about the Joseph and Judith Conda STEAM Education Center enough to further its mission too as the University of Findlay continues to raise funds in time for a planned spring 2020 groundbreaking.

“I am honored and humbled by the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Conda,” said Sapp. “We look forward to creating a STEAM Education Center that will make them proud! They have such a strong passion for the arts and education, and this will be the perfect place for that to come to life in such a different and creative way.”