school bus

Advocate file photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK

Louisiana has to step up its proficiency in science, math and engineering or it will be "run over" by the rest of the world, Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Rallo said Wednesday.

"If we don't engage in this activity the world is not going to stop and let Louisiana catch up," Rallo said.

"If we don't engage in it not only are we going to be left behind, we are going to get run over," he said.

Rallo made his comments during the first meeting of the LaSTEM Advisory Council.

The panel was set up to elevate science, math and other subjects in schools, especially for women, and pair those skills with lucrative jobs.

"Our charge, in short, is to build a pipeline of STEM talent," said Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell and sponsor of the legislation that launched the study.

The 29-member committee is divided equally between officials of public schools and colleges and industry.

STEM is the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.

The fields are among the fastest growing in the world, especially computer science.

The committee will make recommendations to the Legislature, with the first one due on Jan. 13.

However, there are signs Louisiana has lots of ground to make up.

Rallo, who is chairman of the council, said the state's latest results on the ACT -- a test of college readiness -- showed that only 10 percent of high school seniors are ready to meet STEM needs in the workplace.

He said 58 percent of high wage, high demand jobs in Louisiana will require some STEM background and 40 percent of all jobs.

"That is what this group is all about," Rallo said.

Hewitt said STEM is a way to trim the salary gap between men and women in Louisiana.

The lawmaker said studies show that women are paid 65 percent of what men are paid, a topic that often sparks controversy in the Legislature.

She said that gap is largely the result of career choices, with women often picking jobs that pay less than men amid work and family demands.

"I firmly believe STEM is a way to close the gap," said Hewitt, a mechanical engineer. "That is the driver for me."

Lupe Lamadrid, senior policy analyst for the state Board of Regents, said a recent national study shed light on why women often steer clear of STEM studies.

Even something as simple as a woman entering a male-dominated college classroom can cause them to change course, Lamadrid said.

"This isn't just necessarily a readiness issue," she said.

Lamadrid also said good advice from often overworked school counselors is a key part in directing students into STEM fields, and making clear what the requirements are.

"Many times these students have no idea what they are getting into," she said.

Jeanne Burns, associate commissioner for Teacher and Leadership Initiatives, said research shows that the quality of teachers, and hands-on activities, play a big role in students pursuing a STEM field.

Burns said state approval of new science standards earlier this year, and a new rule that will require student teachers to spend a year in the classroom working with a mentor, can help the state's STEM push.

Hewitt said she had to agree not to seek state dollars when the STEM push won legislative approval.

She said that, once the goals of the group are set, industries will be asked for donations.

"I believe they will see tremendous value in the work this group is going to do," Hewitt told the panel.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.