Conference aims to increase education, decrease local brain drain

ROME — For Sean Furman, an internship at ANDRO Computational Solutions meant a chance to expand his horizons, get some work experience and keep busy.

But on top of all of that, he got the chance to meet astronomers, psychologists, astronauts and actors through the Project Fibonacci STEAM Conference ANDRO sponsored in August.

“Initially, I was hoping to gain some knowledge in other fields that I wasn’t as familiar with, that’s what I wanted going into it,” the 21-year-old electrical engineering student said. “The thing I didn’t think about as much going in, was really some of the life lessons that a lot of the speakers brought to the table.”

STEAM is an educational acronym which emphasizes the importance of learning science, technology, engineering, arts and math together.

Main speakers at STEAM conference

Astronomer Alex Filippenko: An elected member of the National Academy of Sciences as well as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has appeared in more than 100 documentaries and is the author of “Cosmos: Astronomy in the New Millennium.”

Psychologist David Eagleman: An adjunct professor at the Department of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. He’s the author of numerous books, including “The Brain: The Story of You.”

NASA Astronaut Alan Bean: A former naval officer, aviator and engineer test pilot. He was the fourth person to walk on the moon. He also pursued his interest in painting to depict various space-related scenes to document his experiences.

Actor Alan Alda: An actor, director, screenwriter and author. He is a science communicator who founded Stony Brook University’s Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield: A colonel who lived on the International Space Station for five months and made 2,600 orbits of Earth. He has recorded science and music videos seen by hundreds of millions.

Professor Brian Greene: A professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University. He is a theoretical physicist, string theorist and chairman and co-founder of the World Science Fair. He has made several television appearances, including “The Big Bang Theory” and “Colbert Report.”

Andrew Drozd, president of ANDRO -- a scientific research and development company, said the conference was inspired by a youth leadership camp his son went to at George Mason University in Virginia a few years ago. The experience transformed his son and left him asking why they couldn’t have something similar in the Mohawk Valley.

So Drozd starting working on bringing that idea to fruition for about a year, with a focus on learning and keeping the next generation here to work instead of feeling as though they have to go elsewhere to fulfill career goals.

″(Drozd’s son) was one of those that was ready to go to college in Florida and I was trying to entice him to stay more locally, which is what a lot of our companies are trying to do,” Drozd said. “We’re losing kids, we’re losing the town, so part of what I’m trying to do as a business owner and as a long-time resident of the area, is to try to help reverse that a little bit.”

So the STEAM Conference was born.

About 220 high school juniors and seniors as well as college students were invited to attend the week-long conference, but about 107 ended up attending. There was a registration fee to attend, but a number of local organizations, including Oriskany and Rome school districts and ANDRO itself, sponsored students so they didn’t have to pay, Drozd said.

About 90 percent of the participants were from New York state, but several other states also were represented, including Washington, Maine, Connecticut, Florida and New Jersey.

The next goal is to extend that reach to other countries and boost the number of participants to about 250-300.

“We’re really trying to drum up more sponsorship,” he said. “Going into this next year, if we get more sponsorship support, we can actually use those sponsorship dollars as scholarship dollars to defray the costs completely ... that is our hope.”

Once the participants arrived at the conference, they were put into a tight, but informative schedule which started off each day with exercise. Drozd said that portion is important because it helps get their brains started and keeps everyone healthy.

Students then attended various workshops and keynote speeches throughout the week, focusing on thinking about the math, science and arts beneath things.

They also had to work in groups and develop a presentation to pitch a business plan to bring a STEAM business to the area.

Alexandria Burger, 16, of Rome, said her group presented a video that tried to push educators to teach STEAM.

Burger has been interning for ANDRO for more than two years now, getting work experience that will help push her ahead in her chosen field of biomedical engineering.

One of the most valuable experiences Burger had during the whole week was that she made friends with a lot of people who had similar interests.

It also helped that she met people who were in different spots in their lives and could answer her questions about college and biomedical engineering.

“I’ve never been an arts person, like at all, I steered clear away from the art classes,” Burger said. “It kind of opened my eyes that science and art mix. ... I liked listening to the older kids, the kids that are in college.”

Next year, Drozd wants to increase the amount of workshops the students participate in, making it more hands on for them. So instead of having Alan Alda talk for an hour about the importance of communicating science better to the general population, he could do a workshop, and physically show the students how to communicate better.

“What Project Fibonacci is trying to do here is to actually try to increase the importance of math across all of our disciplines,” Drozd said. “To me, math is very critical because the math is the binding glue between the arts and the science worlds, you just see it in both domains ... We wanted to make the students more aware of that connecti

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