By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on December 20, 2013
The idea for an Atlanta Science Festival was born in February 2011 when three Emory University program directors and friends met for coffee at Starbucks at Emory Village.
“Let’s do this,” Meisa Salaita remembered saying at the time — agreeing with the Atlanta Science Festival’s other two co-founders.
The first Atlanta Science Festival will take place from March 22 to March 29 — an ambitious, metrowide undertaking aimed at blanketing the region with a week full of science-related events, programs and displays.
“The community is so rich in science,” said David Hartnett, chair of the Atlanta Science Festival. “But we have never been able to tell the story locally, which is the stepping stone to telling the story globally.”
The Atlanta Science Festival will have more than 50 events at 35 venues — expected to attract 35,000 participants — and culminating with an all-day expo at Centennial Olympic Park on Saturday, March 29.
The expo also will be happening on the same day as the finals of the Georgia Robotics competition — taking place next door at the Georgia World Congress Center.
The weeklong offerings will have something for everyone — the science of beer, behind-the-scenes visits at Zoo Atlanta and the Georgia Aquarium, artists, comedians, entrepreneurs and scientists all showing off their works and relating it to the core themes of STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics in Atlanta.
“This will be the first voice for STEAM in Atlanta,” said Hartnett, who also serves as vice president of economic development for bioscience and health IT for the Metro Atlanta Chamber. “It’s all about having a touch and feel experience.”
So far, 63 organizations and entities have signed on to be festival collaborators — by providing volunteers or by presenting events or by contributing financially or a combination of support.
Salaita, who moved to Atlanta from California four years ago, was impressed by the diverse scientific community that was growing in her new hometown. But she also realized that it was an attribute that few recognized.
“We are really great in science,” Salaita said. “We have great institutions and great corporations. But I don’t think we are generally thought of by residents as a city for science. And we want to change that. Our goal is to try to bring science to everybody and to highlight Atlanta as a science city.”
Salaita was at Emory in 2011 when she joined forces with associates Sarah Peterson, program coordinator for student and academic affairs for Emory’s Laney Graduate School, and Jordan Rose, associate director of Emory’s Center for Science Education.
In late December 2011, they approached Emory University President Jim Wagner seeking his support. Wagner immediately began calling colleagues and business executives on Christmas Eve, endorsing the idea.
Soon Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson also came on board as well as the Metro Atlanta Chamber, numerous organizations and even Delta Air Lines Inc. as the festival’s gold sponsor.
Hartnett, who called the festival “a massive undertaking,” said that the festival has raised about $200,000, and the overall budget will be about $400,000.
Salaita, now director of education, outreach and diversity of the National Science Foundation/NASA Center for Chemical Evolution at Georgia Tech, is counting the days to when the festival begins.
The Atlanta festival is being modeled after similar events in a handful of other cities, including Philadelphia, Cambridge, San Francisco and San Diego.
Asked if the Atlanta Science Festival would be an annual event, Salaita said that decision has not yet been made.
“At the moment we are focused on the first year,” she said. “It will depend on how it goes this year. We would love for it to be an annual event.”