The Atlanta Science Festival is Reshaping How the South talks STEM
This story has been donated to the Atlanta History Center’s Corona Collective.
This story is dedicated to the memory of Rep. John Lewis (1940-2020). His District, encompassing all the locations featured in the story, is our District. He fought for the dignity of all, insisted on the transformational impact of education, and set an example for a new generation of leaders to dream big and make good trouble.
A few miles away from the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where the President would be grappling with the fallout of COVID-19 for the first time, a time machine was booting up on Georgia Tech’s campus.
As kids and adults alike trickled into the Ferst Center of the Arts on a breezy March Friday evening, they were handed silver commemorative future-themed “travel passes” that would provide access to the 2100 edition of the Atlanta Science Festival (ATLSciFest). In “2100: A Climate Odyssey,” North America’s largest time machine would teleport the audience to the Puente Hills Landfill in Los Angeles County, the Great Barrier Reef, the Congo Basin, and Siberia, Russia. The drama was advertised to show how climate change would alter these places by the end of the century.
As I prepared for time travel, it occurred to me that in order to project the future, one would need to be grounded in the present as well as attuned to the past. In keeping with the theme of the event, I brought along a map created in the 1930’s by the federal government’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) that designated the desirability of neighborhoods in cities across the nation. As the Atlanta Science Festival prepares to launch into 2100, it is worth understanding the historic factors that led to the various levels of scientific literacy and participation across different parts of the city, and how such present trends are a signal of what’s to come.
With everyone strapped on their imaginary seat belts, the machine would turn on in three.
As the engine shuddered to a stop, it was obvious that something was off.
First of all, not many people actually made it onto the time machine.
When I ran into Meisa Saliata, the co-founder and co-director of the Atlanta Science Festival, she told me that contrary to previous years, this opening event was not at full capacity. Indeed, the 1000-capacity auditorium was barely half-full, but the rows and rows of empty seats did not seem to dampen the participants’ enthusiasm. Perhaps that was because they had paid a 20-dollar entrance fee; looking at the first four rows at the orchestra pit, which cost as much as the back rows, there were only a handful of people of color among almost 200 seats.
Second, the teleporter was “malfunctioning”, so that participants were trapped within Metro Atlanta. This was a sly feature of the show, not a bug; the writers intended to illustrate how extreme rainfall and hurricanes could possibly ravage the area. Georgia Tech is located right near the Eastern Continental Divide: rainfall on one side of the divide goes to the Atlantic Ocean while heading to the Gulf of Mexico on the other. While this location might spare it from the worst effects of extreme rainfall, Tech’s immediate neighbors are not as fortunate: Parts of the City of Atlanta, including Georgia Tech, still use combined sewers which date back to the 19th century and carry a combination of raw sewage and stormwater runoff. With extreme rainfall, the sewers would be overwhelmed and raw sewage would enter waterways or back up in buildings in a phenomenon known as combined sewer overflow. Studies have shown that since Reconstruction, Black Atlantans have disproportionately lived in areas of lower elevation, with heavier flooding risk and polluted water sources, as a result of discriminative city planning practices.
The show writers had to walk a fine line between making the show family-friendly and stressing the seriousness of the climate crisis. They enlisted help from The Weather Channel to create mock weather reports, complete with computer-generated simulations and blaring sirens. The show had moments of levity; at interludes, mock commercials poked fun at a future where trees could only be seen as a traveling exhibit at stadiums and advertised LifePacks from the makers of “Bulletproof Backpack”. Yet, said future was almost dystopian in nature, one where the Environmental Protection Agency was dismantled because, heck, there was nothing left to protect anymore. Instead, the fictional Environmental Restoration Agency took its place to try to turn things around. It didn’t help that under this hypothetical timeline, the Georgia Legislature failed to pass infrastructural resilience bills that would have helped residents weather the crisis. While the show clearly demonstrated the fallout from a lack of political will and citizen awareness, it was unable to offer timelines where inspired Southerners successfully tackled global warming or “in-between” scenarios, where some progress has been done but future generations would still bear the consequences of the climate crisis. This was unfortunate because there were quite a number of people who were genuinely interested in understanding what exactly caused climate change, and how they could reverse it.
As the show came to a close, some real-life science professionals made their way on the stage to answer questions, including Dr. Kim Cobb, a Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech, and Carl Parker, a meteorologist from The Weather Channel. Two dozen folks lined up at mics at the front of the auditorium: mostly kids, some adults, and even one of Dr. Cobb’s daughters. When a boy asked whether the Earth’s magnetic field was responsible for climate change, one of the experts on stage started to ramble, and the confused child just tilted his head and stared at the sidewall of the auditorium. Fortunately, the MC sensed that something was amiss; he gracefully wrapped up the expert’s spiel and answered, “no”, to the child’s relief.
Yet, said future was almost dystopian in nature, one where the Environmental Protection Agency was dismantled because, heck, there was nothing left to protect anymore.
The Atlanta Science Festival was off to an uneven start, but there were still some bright spots: When Dr. Cobb mentioned that a President Ocasio-Cortez would finally take the necessary climate action and sign the Beijing Climate Accords, most of the crowd roared.
But when I ran into my friend after the show, who was sitting further back, he told me as Dr. Cobb was greeted with applause, he saw a couple of folks head for the exits.
Less than 24 hours later, I arrived somewhere close to Spelman College, one of the leading Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Unlike Georgia Tech, a public higher education institution in Midtown Atlanta, Spelman, a private, women’s liberal arts college, has a closed campus located at the Atlanta University Center (AUC), surrounded by a majority-Black and economically challenged part of the city. This proved to be a problem for some participants as they were led by Google Maps to the main gate, which is locked on weekends. I saw a frustrated mom, with her two children at the back of her car, ask police officers from nearby Clark Atlanta University for directions to the NASA Auditorium, where the event would be held; she would have to drive all the way around the Spelman campus to another entrance not indicated on the Festival’s official website.
Atlanta is revered as a “Black Mecca”, an epicenter of African-American culture, education, job opportunities, and entertainment. However, racial minorities and women traditionally have had difficulty entering, staying, and succeeding in STEM careers. This is where the Atlanta Science Festival aims to step up. As told to me by Dr. Salaita, “we aim to create a variety of programs that will each reach different sectors by placing them in different neighborhoods and changing the topic or format.
It took a few years for Dr. Salaita to reach this realization: “I was interested then in helping make science more a part of our culture by creating public science events that one would attend in the same way that people attend public art events. I was also very interested in increasing access to science and bringing science into neighborhoods that would not otherwise have science learning opportunities. I would say that over time, I’ve shifted more towards being interested in broadening access over the idea of making science a part of ‘culture.’ The need feels so much greater.”
Indeed, Westside Atlanta, anchored by the AUC and the neighborhoods of English Avenue, Vine City, and Ashview Heights, was once a symbol of black progress. According to a Land Use Framework Plan prepared by the City of Atlanta Government,
“in the 1920’s [they] were the first subdivisions where African Americans can legally purchase and own property in the State of Georgia. By the 1950’s, the area consisted of several thriving neighborhoods and was home to the majority of Atlanta’s African American professional population. Vine City, for example, was the home of notable Civil Rights Movement leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Maynard Jackson, Julian Bond, and many others. Dr. King chose to move from the east side, where he was born, to the Westside in the 1960’s.”
At the time the HOLC praised Lakewood Heights (D17), a block away from the AUC at D18, as “the Best negro section in Atlanta”. Ironically, HOLC declared both zones as “hazardous”, and by a practice now known as redlining, encouraged lending institutions to deny residents access to capital investment which could improve their housing and economic opportunity. So as white residents fled D17 and D18 in favor of freeway-connected northern suburbs in the 60’s, and desegregation laws unshackled affluent African-Americans to develop their own suburbs, many working-class communities were left to fend for themselves with shrinking human and financial capital. Today, many students in the Westside, an overwhelming majority of them black, face severe academic and financial hardship. In Brown Middle School, only 16.6% of its students reach the Georgia Department of Education “Proficient Learner Milestone” in science subjects according to the most recent report. For Biology class at Booker T. Washington High School, MLK Jr.’s alma mater, the “Proficient Learner” rate is a sobering 18.9% in Biology. Every single student enrolled in these two schools are “economically disadvantaged”, through little fault of their own.
The various systemic barriers, both physical and metaphorical, were central to the premise of STEM GEMS, a book and its spin-off outreach initiative created by Stephanie Espy. In its second iteration at the Atlanta Science Festival, STEM GEMS brought along a panel of seven women professionals across disciplines ranging from biostatistics to data science and public health science. The discussion focused on how young women entering STEM careers, especially women of color, could make money, help people, and make a difference. To ground the discussion, Espy put up some sobering statistics: While women comprise 47% of the total labor force in the United States and earn 57% of all bachelor degrees, they earn a small proportion of bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields and only makeup 24% of all STEM jobs.
If a boy makes fun of you for being good at math, you won't see him in a few years, and he won't pay your bills anyway! You can be multifaceted. We are complex beings. —Shivali Kadam, chemical engineer, 2019 Miss Oregon, STEM GEMS Panelist
The audience was visibly different from that of the previous night; over three-fourths were black, women, or both. In this more intimate setting, the STEM GEMS team had participants write down their names on paper slips, so the panelists could pick a paper slip and directly introduce themselves to an aspiring female STEM professional. The crowd was informed and engaged: many grade-schoolers knew what an actuary does; when asked by one of the panelists whether they loved to be challenged, everyone raised their hands, big and small. The audience in turn also asked questions ranging from how these role models have found their role models, resources the panelists recommend for young women (Google and Coursera were the consensus choices), and the relationship between the arts and the sciences.
At the end of the Q&A sessions a special surprise was awaiting the attendees: Delta Community Credit Union, a sponsor of the Festival, offered to give out every person in the auditorium the STEM GEMS book. As volunteers finished handing out the books and the parents started reading with their children, I talked to Kalil Masters, an African-American senior from Lithia Springs High School in exurban Douglas County.
When Masters signed up as a volunteer, he simply wanted to get service hours to graduate from his high school STEM program. A few bad experiences during his freshman and sophomore years set back his progress until the Atlanta Science Festival offered him an opportunity to get over half the total hours he needed. After he and other volunteers were trained in February through a series of emails and a “do and don’ts” education video, he was sent to help usher events across the city.
He now has a changed view of community service. “Before I was reluctant to even try, now I feel like I want to keep doing stuff like this that positively impacts our community.” Although his sister, a Spelman student, could not make it to the STEM GEMS panel, at his encouragement, his mom would have attended one of the events he would be volunteering at the following week. “ The way the South as a whole is perceived by the rest of the United States and even other countries is that we are backwards, traditional, and stuck in 1850. The only way to change that view is to keep this momentum that's been built up and also encourage kids to be the next engineers and doctors or other science fields to make a difference in the community. Seeing the kids at the ‘Build Like an Architect’ event or the ‘STEM GEMS’ event reminded me of myself when I was younger and completely infatuated with learning about being the ‘next great engineer of tomorrow’ as they put it.”
The way the South as a whole is perceived by the rest of the United States and even other countries is that we are backwards, traditional, and stuck in 1850. The only way to change that view is to keep this momentum that's been built up and also encourage kids to be the next engineers and doctors or other science fields to make a difference in the community. —Kalil Masters, Volunteer
As I waded my way through the dispersing, energized crowd, I tried to understand more about Spelman’s role as hosts. It led me to Dr. Maira Goytia, an Assistant Professor at the Biology Department.
Her involvement with the Festival started in 2016 when colleagues Dr. Jennifer Kovacs and Dr. Dongfang Wang approached her to develop a booth at the Exploration Expo, an extravaganza capping the end of ATLSciFest at Piedmont Park in Midtown Atlanta (The event was canceled this year.) The booth involves hand-on experiments related to color and vision, attracting over 500 children every year. Spelman was a natural partner for Espy as she reached out to them in 2019, as their Biology Department at the time had 14 of 16 faculty and staff being underrepresented or foreign-born, 11 being women.
“Espy was right that Spelman College would be the perfect venue to expose young girls and boys to women of diverse backgrounds with diverse career paths that succeeded and are happy in their STEM and STEM-related professions. STEM Gems has opened the door to more than 100 children, parents, family members, and teachers, to attend the event, walk through Spelman’s campus, and interact one-on-one with successful STEM professionals and other Spelman faculty.”
While Dr. Goytia is indeed both foreign-born and female, her Argentinian and French roots make her the odd lady out at Spelman, where a grand total of four white students have enrolled in the past five full academic years. HBCUs have always opened their arms to applicants of any race, as contrasted to the racial segregation commonly practiced by most Southern higher education institutions up until the 1960’s. Since then, some of those HBCUs have diversified so much that they have more white students than black students in recent years; Spelman, the best of them all, has become more black.
I asked Dr. Goytia about how she is doing her part to be an ally within the most elite spheres of African-American culture. “Spelman is unique because of its student body, its faculty, and its history in Atlanta, in Georgia, and nationally. We educate individuals who identify as women and of African descent. Spelman has enriched me culturally by opening my eyes and my mind to perspectives that were not discussed during my upbringing.”
The students fiercely believe the leadership role they need to take on for their communities for young children that look up to them. This has emphasized the need to let our students take charge of the activities that Spelman offers. — Dr. Maira Goytia, Assistant Professor, Spelman College
“ Through my students’ life and experiential stories, I understood better the social and educational inequities and imbalances in America. The students fiercely believe the leadership role they need to take on for their communities for young children that look up to them. This has emphasized the need to let our students take charge of the activities that Spelman offers. While in previous years, Drs. Wang, Kovacs, and myself were in charge of logistics and performing, over the years we have passed on the responsibilities to the students. In the past 2 years, students have led the activities in the booth, and this year the intention was our students to take charge of both activities and logistics. We were going to support them in their achievement, but step down from decision making.”
Depending on who you might ask, Spelman is simultaneously the most and least diverse college in America. But as I looked from the stage to the seats and to the backstage, the future is bright for everyone in this room, and also of the neighborhoods once known as D17 and D18.
You might be surprised that Buckhead, one of Atlanta’s more well-known and well-advertised neighborhoods, did not receive a rating by the HOLC.
In fact, Buckhead was not annexed into (soft paywall) the City of Atlanta until 1950, a decade after the creation of the map. Buckhead appears to have an air of timelessness, inevitability, and extravagant wealth; however, there has been a subtle but steady shift.
Atlanta’s suburbs used to have a conservative, and often racist bent: after successfully annexing Buckhead, then-Atlanta mayor William B. Hartsfield turned his sights on Sandy Springs, another majority-white, wealthy neighborhood. Instead, two spokesmen for Sandy Springs vowed to “build up a city separate from Atlanta and your Negroes and forbid any Negroes to buy, or own, or live within our limits.” But by the 2010s, well-to-do suburbanites were again attracted to the neighborhoods within Atlanta proper they once deserted, where public housing projects have made way for transit-oriented development and gentrification. (Atlanta has the dual distinction of being the first city in the United States to build federally-funded public housing and the first to completely tear all of them down.) On the other hand, inner-city residents have been driven out by high rents to some of the very suburbs populated by white flight.
Today the suburbs increasingly skew diverse, liberal, and science-curious. For example, 11 miles (17 km) away from the Atlanta City Hall, Clarkston, Ga. is now known as the “most diverse square mile in America” after opening its arms to refugees and immigrants. Suburban Atlanta has also become more competitive in elections. Cobb and Gwinnett, two of Georgia’s most educated counties, voted Democrat in the 2016 Presidential Election, the first time since native son Jimmy Carter swept every Georgia county to the Presidency four decades ago. In particular, the Sixth Congressional District, a 5-minute-drive away from The Amphibian Foundation (AF) and the former seat of Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, is widely viewed as a toss-up. Democrat Lucy McBath, an African-American former flight attendant, flipped the seat narrowly in 2018 and is heading towards a rematch with former Rep. Karen Handel, who won the 2017 special election, the most expensive House election in history.
The emphasis is placed on the word drive because Atlanta is one of the most car-reliant and spread-out cities in North America. Festival events concurrently occur as far as 40 miles (63 km) away from one another (one can drive across the entire state of Rhode Island with less mileage), adding to the logistical challenge. However, the Atlanta Science Festival’s emphasis on both inner-city neighborhoods and outer-ring suburbs is intended to ensure everyone can experience science locally.
Hidden in plain sight at the northernmost edge of the City of Atlanta, The Amphibian Foundation’s site on the Blue Heron Natural Preserve is a serene suburban wildlife sanctuary. I was greeted by a group of the Amphibian Foundation’s staff and volunteers at the sunroom upon arrival; further upstairs, I met my old friend Mark Mandica, the AF’s Founder and Executive Director. We first met the year before, as he was invited to be the keynote speaker of a STEM conference for Asian Americans. Since then, his leg injury seems to have healed and he was energetic and wise as usual.
Mandica explained how they timed the AF’s biannual Open House to fall on the Atlanta Science Festival. “I have known the founders of the Festival for a long time, and they also value what we do often, so the AF uses the Festival to reach a larger audience and educate them about amphibians. We now have eight events this year!”
He echoed Dr. Saliata’s point of view on expanding access to STEM events across metro Atlanta. “The Atlanta Science Festival provides city-wide experiences, so we strive to make all our events free and accessible. We try to hit all demographics because amphibians are declining but most people don’t know, so we try to get the word out, focusing on the biology of the despised. Our benchmark is to count how many new faces appear; we know that a different set of people show up at our Critters and Cabernet monthly event whenever it occurs at the Festival.”
We try to hit all demographics because amphibians are declining but most people don’t know, so we try to get the word out, focusing on the biology of the despised. —Mark Mandica, Founder and Executive Director, The Amphibian Foundation
While 500 people registered to attend How Snakes Work (presented in partnership with How Stuff Works on the East side of the city) and the Open House over the weekend, only about three dozen people showed up to the Blue Heron Nature Preserve. Atlanta’s racial divide along North-South lines is again reflected in the majority-Caucasian crowd: Young children crowded around the tortoises on the floor; when one of the startled tortoises pooped, Mandica joked that “a banana disaster” occurred. On the other side, older kids grabbed their parents’ hands when they saw a jar containing a preserved frog eating a chipmunk, while moms asked about homeschooling opportunities.
Interestingly, staff and employees of the Festival’s partners would attend one another’s events. I ran into Emily Pfeifer, who works for The Center for Hard to Recycle Materials (CHaRM), an event presenter, and her partner Jesse Miers, a Georgia Tech alum working to optimize aircraft performance and reduce fuel consumption for Delta Air Lines. Miers is also the President of Green Up, Delta’s employee-led business resource group that establishes sustainability ambassadors throughout the company. They had just come back from a three-day canoe excursion from the Everglades, and are regular attendees of the Festival’s events, including The Story Collider, and Science Improv. They heard about this year’s events through social media and from their companies.
Said Pfeifer: “This is the first time we’ve been to the Amphibian Foundation; the Atlanta Science Festival motivates us to go to new places.” They have gone to the events with some of their friends and family; as far as they recall, they have never seen the same strangers twice in all the events they have attended. As reflected by their professional and leisurely endeavors, the couple has been nature lovers. Miers would agree: “Sustainability is a big part of science overall; also, we drove here on a Tesla!”
By the end of the open house, Pfeifer and Miers agreed to meet me the following week at the Highland Inn and Ballroom for another edition of The Story Collider. In addition, Mandica encouraged me to cover their joint event with the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance where they would present the infamous snapping turtle.
None of that would happen: days after our Sunday at the Preserve, all remaining events were canceled following government recommendations to avoid gatherings of over 10 people.
If only Dr. Saliata had access to an alternative timeline.
In that world, her team would have successfully lined up 100-plus events, executed an outdoor extravaganza, and harnessed a multigenerational, intersectional coalition of science-passionate Atlantans.
Despite that, there was no hesitation over canceling the remainder of the Festival. “Yes, we have always sold out. None of the events that ran this year were anywhere close to the capacity they’ve been in past years. While it was a tough decision, we knew it was the right one. We made the call early, but have certainly been validated in our decision by the way COVID-19 has spread and the effect it has had on our lives,” she responded through email.
We made the call early, but have certainly been validated in our decision by the way COVID-19 has spread and the effect it has had on our lives. —Dr. Meisa Salaita, Co-founder and Co-director, Atlanta Science Festival
The abrupt end of the events is just the beginning of more behind-the-scenes work for everyone involved in the Atlanta Science Festival. Mandica indicated in subsequent correspondence that his team has been scrambling to keep the Foundation alive, get the animals fed, and have staff paid (He has been undertaking unpaid work). “I couldn’t have predicted how COVID-19 guidance would have impacted the Amphibian Foundation, and the real possibility that it will cause us to shut down. All of our sources of funding support have fallen off a cliff.”
On the contrary, Dr. Goytia is having high hopes of the young ladies at Spelman. “We expect that in the upcoming years, more students will be involved in this leadership experience and more on-campus organizations will want to demonstrate their presence at the Festival.” She believes that more activities and more booths will, as a result, make more children feel represented in the STEM field.
For now, patience is a virtue for Masters and fellow volunteers: “From the Kickoff event, the Festival staff made it clear that they were unsure if the events would be able to continue through the impending pandemic. When the first event that I was doing was canceled, I knew for sure the rest of them would also be in the days to come. All events I would be attending sent clear messages that said they would be canceled. Afterward, the leaders followed up in a series of emails about how they wanted us to come next year.” If he ever decides to return though, Masters will bring with him more knowledge and experience: he has committed to studying Electrical Engineering at Kennesaw State University.
Dr. Salaita and her team will have to attempt to reach meaningful conclusions anyway. In the past, surveys were handed out at every event, and Science ATL, the parent entity of the Atlanta Science Festival in which Dr. Salaita serves as Founding Board Member, would commission Emily Frobos and Dr. Meltem Alemdar of Georgia Tech’s CEISMC to complete an analysis of the collected surveys. Additionally, a large evaluation team would walk around the Exploration Expo and survey on iPads. For example, if the team interviews every tenth person they meet, they could acquire around 400 surveys and extrapolate from there. “The process has informed changes by allowing us to see which demographics we are not hitting. We then have reached out for some targeted partnerships to create events specifically designed for the audiences that we are lacking,” said Dr. Salaita. Now, they have to make use of what limited feedback and demographic data they have, with the hope that by the time COVID-19 subsides, they could provide an improved experience for all parties.
Science ATL is currently working with an independent consulting firm to develop a strategic plan with benchmarks and measurable points of progress to measure whether the Festival is making progress on problems that it intends to address. Nevertheless, from their annual report, it appears that they have a firm sense of where they are heading. 60,000 people attended 128 events in the Festival’s 2019 iteration, approximately 1% of the total population in metro Atlanta, which spans 8,376 square miles (21,694 km²) and 335 unique ZIP codes – a land area comparable to Massachusetts. Around 60% of all events offered were free, while attendees have been consistently majority-female and reflective, if not more diverse, than metro Atlanta’s racial makeup. Furthermore, 84% of Festival attendees rated events as “Very good” or “Excellent”, with 72% saying that the Festival helped them see the region as making advances in STEM.
So, if we hopped on a time machine and traveled five years into the future, what would the Atlanta Science Festival look like?
“Ha! I actually don’t imagine the Festival to look that different. I want to keep it at a similar number of events and partners and keep roughly the same scope and financial expenditure. That said, I imagine other initiatives of Science ATL to continue to grow, along with new ideas that we have yet to execute and that I’m not ready to talk about at this point.”
For all the promise and progress the Atlanta Science Festival provides — they have also launched a science communication fellowship, the Chief Science Officer program, an at-home science passport, and a face covering project — it is not yet enough to undo the sins of the past. The discriminatory HOLC map from almost 90 years ago has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The COVID-19 pandemic would, without doubt, set time back with regards to the effort built in the last seven years. Science, by itself, does not solve systemic racism or economic blight or the climate crisis.
That said, if you squint closely, the organizers, partners, and volunteers represent the New South’s best shot at a future where everyone cares about science, gets to be a part of it, and has their lives transformed from that.
Screw it. They’re already building a time machine to make the future now.
This story has been updated to correct the name of the sponsor of the STEM GEMS books and the events that Miers and Pfeiffer at