Q&A: JoAnn Newman, Orlando Science Center, touts partnerships for Spark STEM Fest


JoAnn Newman starts the conversation off on a light note.

Why did the Orlando Science Center change the name of its annual tech celebration “Otronicon” to “Spark Stem Fest” this year?

“I’d start with the pronunciation of ‘Otronicon,’” said Newman, the science center’s president and CEO, with a chuckle, acknowledging that it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. “We have heard it called ‘Oconitron,’ ‘Ocornitron’ and just about every permutation of ‘Otronicon’ you can think of.”

However, as she speaks, she drills down further into the real reason the Orlando Science Center’s premiere event shifted gears this year, sunsetting the popular festival’s name after 17 years.

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“We wanted to create more of a STEM festival feel,” she said. “Tech is still a huge part of it but we wanted to tackle all kinds of science and STEM topics. It’s amazing the new energy we found with the new branding. As much as we loved the name, it was time to evolve.”

The Orlando Science Center will host its first-ever “Spark STEM Fest,” a four-day event that starts Friday at 10 a.m.

In the leadup to the celebration, Newman spoke to Orlando Tech News about the importance of technology, the Science Center’s approach to being a part of the community and how crucial it is for tomorrow’s workforce that young students of all backgrounds are not left behind.


Orlando Tech News: Talk about the partnerships you have managed to land, not only for this event but in general.

JoAnn Newman: “It can be difficult for an organization like ours to live on the cutting edge of technology. We rely on amazing, high-profile partners to bring their cool stuff in because they are living and breathing it every day. They are immersed in this stuff. We love leveraging and tapping into these partners to give them their recognition. That’s what makes it a special event.”

OTN: I have been to several events and love the hands-on experiences there.

JN: “We love when they bring that authentic technology because it gives our audience personal access to things they may not always have. Disney is running a coding workshop and bringing in some of their Tron light cycles. The partners are truly amazing. It’s a great two-way street where we benefit from their presence and they benefit from this interaction and exposure to the people in their own backyard.”

OTN: Where does your appreciation for technology and science come from?

JN: “I had (an engineering) career with AT&T. When they shut that down and jobs were sent offshore, I had this passion, especially for being able to engage youth and getting girls interested in science.”

OTN: The tech community has been trying to tackle that for a while now.

JN: “When I was going to school for engineering, there weren’t many and there still aren’t many today. I love what we are able to do at the Science Center and the payoff is really watching these youth – and adults, really – come in an experience what we have to offer. For us, it is inspiring them and sparking their interest and their curiosity. It’s being able to take some of the fear away from these subjects.”

OTN: What is it about science that makes it important for kids to learn?

JN: “We are trying to provide access and teaching them skills about how to solve problems, how to think critically and build their confidence. We help them understand that there is a place for you in these careers. We try to show them what they can do and help them along the pathway. For those who are hooked on it already, we take them on a deeper dive. It feels good and we love doing this.”

OTN: Do you have any final words about Spark STEM Fest?

JN: These kinds of things attract a lot of people. It is just so much of a statement and it’s an opportunity to come to one place and experience all of that. These large festivals are just one tool in our tool bag. They are just so important. It’s great for partners, too. They can’t come out every day of the year to the Science Center but they are certainly willing to come out a couple of times a year. To gather them is a great opportunity for the community.

This is the first of a two-part series. The next will post on Friday morning.