Louisiana is about to launch a new bid to elevate one of the hottest fields in education, and improve on the dismal number of women in science, technology, engineering and math.
The targeted careers – known as STEM – will be the topic of an influential panel authorized by the Legislature earlier this year, and set to hold its first meeting on Wednesday at 10 a.m.
The goal is to boost student interest in science, technology, engineering and math; align those skills with fast-growing workforce needs and increase the number of women with STEM degrees.
Women make up only 16 percent, 12 percent and 23 percent of engineering, physics and computer science graduates respectively, according to state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell and the prime mover behind the push.
"Women are very underrepresented in these fields," said Hewitt, a mechanical engineering graduate herself.
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The 29-member panel is called the Louisiana Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Advisory Council.
The group, which is chaired by Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Rallo, includes LSU President F. King Alexander; state Superintendent of Education John White and officials of a wide range of public school groups. Others include officials of The Boeing Company, Century Link, the state Department of Economic Development and representatives of colleges and universities.
Hewitt, who sponsored the bill that set up the council, said a high school survey showed that while 52 percent of high school students have an interest in STEM fields, only 14 percent are considered STEM-ready based on test results.
"We know that part of the problem is we can't just start at the high school level," she said. "You really have to start at the elementary level in creating an interest and building the skills."
"The only way we are going to get there and make major changes is by having a game plan," she said. "That is what the advisory council is going to do."
Louisiana has pockets where interest in STEM fields is flourishing, including industry partnerships with colleges and high schools.
However, no statewide plan exists.
The council is supposed to craft just such an outline.
It will spell out objectives in STEM education and career opportunities, and align elementary, secondary and postsecondary curricula and programs.
The aim is to "create a new STEM culture and promote activities that raise awareness of STEM education and STEM career opportunities," according to the legislation.
One of the goals is to set up a competitive grants program to fund robotics contests, which enhance soft skills, project management, and teamwork.
Another is to get dollars into the newly-created STEM Education Fund, a lofty goal amid state budget problems.
The state Board of Regents, which will oversee the effort, will serve as a clearinghouse on resources for both public schools and college and universities.
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Also, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is supposed to come up with requirements for a high school diploma endorsement for students who show superior skills in STEM fields.
Studies show that, in the next 10 years, workforce demand in Louisiana for STEM talent is expected to grow by 18 percent. But not enough students are in the pipeline now to fill those needs.
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"We want to make sure our students, both K-12 and university, are on pathways to aspire to those jobs," Rallo said.
Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said the panel will tackle a key need for the state. "We are drastically low in computing degrees, especially if you look at female graduates," he said.
Waguespack noted that plans by Amazon to build a second headquarters, which will be highly sought by cities and states, points up the issue.
"We know one thing, they need is STEM-related jobs," he said.
LABI's slot on the council will be filled by Mike Gaudet, who has a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering and is a member of the East Baton Rouge Parish school board.
Hewitt said the best way for Louisiana to solve its recurring budget problems is to create high-paying jobs.
"That was the backbone of the whole thing," she said. "My vision is for Louisiana to be the go-to state for STEM talent."