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Columbia man’s vision helps unify Maryland’s STEM community

Columbia man’s vision helps unify Maryland’s STEM community
Phil Rogofsky, who started the Howard County STEM festival in 2012, has helped organize events for the 10-day Maryland STEM Festival opening Friday with ceremonies in Baltimore. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

Before Phil Rogofsky had an epiphany a couple years ago, festivals promoting science, technology, engineering and math for Maryland students were unaligned events taking place here and there across the state.

Now, thanks to the Columbia resident's work, 480 events across the state are being unified this year under the umbrella of the Maryland STEM Festival.

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During this year's 10-day festival — launching Friday with two opening ceremonies in Baltimore at the Maryland Science Center and the National Aquarium — events will focus on subjects such as robotics, animation, 3-D printing and cybersecurity.

For more information on the festival and a schedule of events by county, go to marylandstemfestival.org.

This year's events are expected to draw more than 50,000 people to explore what are widely perceived as careers of the future.

Not enough students are pursuing STEM studies at a time when related jobs are projected to increase rapidly, the U.S. Department of Education website states. That's precisely what the Maryland STEM Festival hopes to remedy.

"STEM is a part of your life; it's not something that you listen to or keep in a box," said Rogofsky, an investigative analyst for a federal agency. "The word's getting out that we need this, and that there's real interest in it."

His home jurisdiction of Howard County will stage 43 events during the festival, allowing participants to design a bottle rocket, take a mystery challenge and attend an astronomy "star party," among other activities. The HoCo Math Festival, held in conjunction with the state festival, will run 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at Howard Community College.

Rogofsky, a married father of two, prefers to stay out of the limelight. As one of six local professionals who make up a committee called STEMulating Minds, he says the other members deserve equal credit for their roles in broadening STEM's appeal.

But they and others who support his concept for a unified statewide festival regard Rogofsky, who serves as festival director, as the driving force behind collaborative efforts to catapult STEM events in Maryland to another level.

"Phil Rogofsky recognized that STEM education is capable of improving kids' lives and our regional economy alike, but that's not what makes his work so exceptional," said U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin in an email.

"Rather, it is the sheer number of hours Phil has devoted to reaching out to educators, corporations, community leaders, media outlets, volunteers and students that has allowed his concept to grow into a viable success," Cardin said, noting his staff has interacted with Rogofsky.

Bill Duncan, a member of STEMulating Minds and executive director of STEMaction Inc., a Howard County-based nonprofit that is a sponsor of the local and state festivals, said Rogofsky's efforts have been invaluable.

"Phil has been tireless in his promotion of a STEM culture, and recruits and encourages volunteers to make the festival happen," Duncan said. "He's our ringleader."

It all started six years ago, when Rogofsky and his son, Noah, took an excursion to the inaugural USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington for Noah's 11th birthday. Noah loved it but lamented that his friends weren't there with him to take part.

"I got it into my head to do something similar on a smaller scale at Wilde Lake Middle School," recalled Rogofsky.

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That one-time festival took place in 2012, and he then decided to expand on it by organizing the annual Howard County STEM Festival in June 2013, which "also went very well and is still going on."

One year later, he started working on the concept of a statewide festival.

The overarching festival theme that pulls all the pieces together is "STEM is fun" — which means students will learn while enjoying themselves, Rogofsky said.

"Most events are hands-on — things you can touch, see and feel — so kids will have a good time," he said. "We need to inspire kids' curiosity and grab their attention, and that's what these events will do."

Maryland already has a robust STEM environment because it's home to institutions such as the National Security Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the Johns Hopkins University, among others, and it's close to Washington.

Still, organizers want to do more to steer students toward STEM.

Rogofsky, who enlists STEM sponsors to post their events on the festival's website, pointed out that libraries across the state were already heavily involved in promoting STEM before the state festival was organized and have proved to be a natural partner.

"Libraries are literally the backbone of the event, and they really jumped on board last year" for the first statewide festival, he said. "They were eager to do this because education is a core part of their mission."

Dorothy Stoltz, programming and outreach director for the Carroll County Public Library, said Rogofsky contacted her about a partnership through her in role in the Maryland Association for Public Library Administrators.

"Libraries were already doing a lot, but we asked ourselves, 'Can we do more, or can we do things differently?' and everyone stepped up," she said.

"Getting youth excited about these activities may lead them into future careers that we might not know now will be needed in the workforce," Stoltz said. "Phil is just a powerhouse and he's really built enthusiasm."

Rogofsky sees the need to place a greater emphasis on medicine and health during future Maryland STEM Festivals and to include agriculture-related events, given the state's agrarian roots.

As for what the future holds for the statewide festival, Rogofsky believes the sky's the limit.

"Students who attend will learn that STEM is not just something they need to succeed in this constantly changing world, but something they want," he said.

NOTE: an earlier version of this story misstated the festival's growth. The 480 events being held across the state this year is 50% more than last year. The Sun regrets the error.

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