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East County Wednesday, May 22, 2019 3 weeks ago

Local woman brings STEM education to Lakewood Ranch youth

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Tara Bergstrom Merino saw a deficiency in STEM education. She opted to fix it herself by starting a nonprofit program called LWR SAVVY to help fill the gap.
by: Eric Snider Contributor

In high school, Tara Bergstrom had a boyfriend who gave her a book titled “The Art of Doing Nothing: Simple Ways to Make Time for Yourself.” Nearly two decades later, she’s never read it. 

Tara Bergstrom-Merino is now 36 and holds a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from Villanova University. The six-year resident of Lakewood Ranch works full time as the program manager of collateral technology for Bank of America Merrill Lynch, where she is a senior vice president. She married a tech guy, Iñigo Merino, the founder and CEO of the cybersecurity firm Cienaga Systems. The couple has an 11-year-old techie son, Michael, and an 8-year-old daughter, Natalie. 

Last year, sensing an education gap in local elementary schools, Bergstrom-Merino started LWR SAVVY, an organization that exposes school-aged children to programs and competitions in science, technology, engineering and math, commonly known as STEM. Although she has people who help out, including Iñigo and other parents, LWR SAVVY is effectively her baby. 

“I’ve always been the type of person who, when I see a problem, I don’t expect someone else to fix it,” she says. “I’m the person with my hand up.”

The current problem at hand, from her view: too little instruction and resources earmarked for STEM education in local schools, especially elementary level. She did not come this conclusion capriciously. For four years, she was on the board of the Parent Teacher Organization at Robert Willis Elementary School, where her children attend. Bergstrom-Merino says she played a major role in amassing $200,000 in contributions during the 2017-’18 school year. As a STEM advocate she had hoped — even expected — a fair amount of the money raised would to go toward her priorities. Willis Elementary ended up allocating just $2,000 for STEM supplies. So, she resigned from the PTO. 

“I was frustrated by where the money was being spent,” she says. “What matters to the district is ELA (English Language Arts). I support the ELA program in schools, but there needs to be a balance. ELA is how the schools get rated. And I wasn’t there to help get the district an A rating.”

Bergstrom-Merino had long been a go-to person for friends and neighbors on how to get youngsters interested in STEM — what toys to buy, how to introduce them to basic computer programming. Through Iñigo, she learned of First Lego League, an international science program with a robotics competition. She discovered that Lakewood Ranch had no Lego League teams, so she put a feeler out on Facebook to see if she could start one.

“In two hours, I had 30 people wanting to be on the team,” she says. “I thought, ‘How am I going to pick [the kids]?’ We decided to do two teams.” She ended up with six. 

After connecting with Monaca Onstad, director of community relations for Lakewood Ranch, about her role in the future of STEM education in the area, Bergstrom-Merino knew it was time to determine her next step.

“[Monaca] said, ‘I’d love to help you with your mission,’” Bergstrom-Merino recalls. “I said, ‘I really don’t have a mission.’ I took the next week to think about what I wanted to do for Lakewood Ranch youth.”

SAVVY (Student Advocates for Our Versatile and Vibrant Youth) was born in June 2018. The program quickly expanded beyond Lego League to include math competitions using 24Game, STEM weekends, speaker sessions, and even a school supply drive in conjunction with the Bradenton Kiwanis that benefited more than 500 children in the Manatee School District. Also, in partnership with Little Geniuses and The Market at Lakewood Ranch, LWR SAVVY hosted a weekly free STEM tent at The Market with activities such as building marble mazes out of cardboard. 

LWR SAVVY team members hard at work on their “moon base” Lego model. (Courtesy photo)

One of SAVVY’s charter members is Matthew Goldberg, a friend and fifth-grade classmate of Bergstrom-Merino’s son Michael. The tandem — along with friends Owen, Porter, Kayden, Bryson and Ike — formed a Lego League team called LWR Bot Tanks. Matthew is the squad’s head coder. 

“We have a lot of sleepovers on weekends and hang out on weekdays doing robotics,” Matthew says. “We’ve pulled a lot of all-nighters.” Not your ordinary kid sleepovers. “Sometimes we’ll be up until 7 a.m. working on stuff at Michael’s house. He and I now have a five-plus-year project to build a life-size Lamborghini out of Legos.”

Bergstrom-Merino is especially pleased that youngsters like Michael, Matthew and the crew can get some recognition. 

“In Lakewood Ranch, there is so much available for athletically gifted kids to shine,” she says. “But how about the academically gifted child? Nobody knows you got straight A’s. Those kids don’t get to feel the same sense of pride in their accomplishments that the pitcher on the baseball team does. With SAVVY, if you’re strong in math, you can win a trophy that says so.”

Bergstrom-Merino gets out in the community to evangelize, build partnerships and gather contributions, but it’s different from her PTO days. 

“I hate going to businesses and asking them for a check,” she says. “But I don’t mind asking for places to sponsor us with a space, or to donate computers for the robotics league, or make T-shirts.”

Bergstrom-Merino’s short and long-terms goals for SAVVY are anything but grandiose. First, she’d like to see some other adults take over programs — to run, organize and grow them so that she can broaden the organization’s scope. More generally, she wants to continue to spark interest and activity in STEM learning throughout Manatee and Sarasota counties.

For her, down time effectively doesn’t exist. “We go out to eat five days a week,” Bergstrom-Merino says. “We have food delivered. I haven’t exercised in I don’t know how long. A cleaning lady comes in once a week. It would be great if I could put on an apron and make dinner seven nights a week, but I think, ‘I can either do that, or I can go coach robotics.’”

And, just so you know, she has no plans to read “The Art of Doing Nothing.” She doesn’t have time. 

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