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Partner Highlight: COSI Science Festival - A Digital Transformation

June 2, 2020

Josh Sarver, VP of Exhibits & Programs and Stephen White Esq., VP of Strategic Initiatives, COSI, Columbus, OH

Leveraging the Power of Partnerships to Deliver Science When It's Needed the Most

COSI digital science festival logo

With its sights focused on another record setting experience in 2020, COSI and its partners prepared for an assortment of exciting programs as well as the infusion of new cities from across the state. With a broader regional focus and a year’s experience under our belts, the possibilities seemed endless.

However, on March 22, Ohio announced the Stay at Home order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and, in turn, COSI (Center for Science and Industry, Columbus, Ohio) pivoted to ensure that distance learning was delivered to the community.

Faced with an unprecedented dynamic in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and event restrictions, the situation challenged our traditional models of engagement and forced COSI and its partners to embrace new ways to engage the public. Without delay, COSI adjusted the festival’s plan to deliver science to our community during a pandemic where science was needed most. In 27 days, COSI pivoted from its yearlong plan to deliver a physical festival, to create the “Digital” COSI Science Festival, one of the largest science, technology, engineering, and math events in Ohio’s history.

This feat of science engagement was fueled through the power of partnerships, and embraced the “Columbus Way” model of collaboration, a case study taught at Harvard Business School which provides strategies on how communities can partner to address societal needs. Together, the COSI Team delivered to the community by living the vision and mission of the institution to engage, inspire, and transform lives and communities by being the best “partner” in science, technology, and industry learning.


As part of the digital COSI Science Festival on May 6-9, 2020, participants had the opportunity to engage with local businesses and individuals who are using STEM in their everyday work. This included 2019 COSI STEM Star TeLario Watkins II, a young scientist and author, the DriveOhio robot racing challenge, an exploration of fungi with the STEAM Factory, uncovering field forensics with the Ohio History Connection, a science-themed trivia night, and much more.

COSI Science Festival paper rockets video
Explore COSI Science Festival videos

The festival concluded with a daylong exploration of at-home science experiments. Seeded with videos from the COSI team, mayors from partner cities, community partners, and even the Governor of Ohio, participants were encouraged to submit their own at-home science experiments using the #COSISciFest as part of the Big At-Home Science Celebration. With videos streaming in all day, the staff found themselves posting into the late hours and the following days.

With more than 39 virtual events and a legacy of experiences being viewed even today, the 2020 COSI Science Festival was among the largest science events in Ohio history. As part of the COSI Science Festival, COSI, Battelle, NASA, and other STEM leaders once again formed an unprecedented partnership that impacted 50,000 people.

COSI Science Festival social media post image of kids at computers
Public photo shared on Facebook tagged to #COSISciFest


During this unprecedented time, the COSI Science Festival and its partners collectively shined a beacon of light, fun, science, and hope for the masses. As our work proceeds, such collaborative and innovative approach to outreach will provide a new vision for what a festival of science will look like for years to come.

Just one year earlier, in May 2019, Ohio experienced the inaugural statewide COSI Science Festival, which engaged 40,000 people across three days of 140 community-based events and a Big Science Celebration outside COSI on the fourth and final day of the festival. Collaborating with 12 local communities and presenting 130 interactive booths with content partners across more than 20 industries, this new type of science festival was a tremendous success. The festival was born to help address workforce development and the skills gap in Ohio by improving science literacy in all communities, especially the underserved in urban and rural communities.

However, as the impact of the pandemic grew, COSI was forced to execute a broad-based strategy to engage public, private, and nonprofit partners to produce digital experiences around science and technology. The focus of the festival shifted to ensure that science was delivered to communities when they needed it the most. Ohioans were hungry for STEM content, and COSI, who was recently named as the number one science center in the country by USA Today, was called upon to help bridge the distance learning and science divide. 

Aided by local, state, and national partners, the Digital COSI Science Festival exceeded all expectations. The COSI Team were thankful for the support of our partners; without these critical relationships, forged and fostered for over two years, these experiences would not have occurred in such a short amount of time.

At a time when science is at the forefront of our society, science centers and museums can serve a unique role as we overcome this pandemic together. Events such as the digital COSI Science Festival are examples of how science centers can engage community leaders and policy makers directly to move the needle forward in science literacy. Strategic pivots that enable an organization to achieve its vision and mission while addressing big community challenges are not only possible, but necessary. The moment to engage community leaders through partnerships is now, and the results can usher in a new model of science festivals and science engagement.

To learn more about COSI's Science Festival, contact Josh Sarver, VP of Exhibits & Programs, at [email protected].

Read COSI's Press Release: COSI Science Festival - A virtual science celebration for 2020