White at STEM Magnet in New Roads 112717

State Superintendent of Education John White joins a table of students during a visit to STEM Magnet Academy in New Roads. The school, which is in its second year, includes a pre-engineering pathway offered by LSU.

Advocate Photo by Will Sentell

Despite daunting hurdles, Louisiana is trying to make a big leap in the number of students who pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

The fields, known as STEM, provide a pathway to lucrative careers, including engineering, digital media and cybertechnology.

But the state's longtime effort to improve public education achievement is even more pronounced when it comes to science and related fields.

Only 10 percent of high school students are STEM eligible, and barely 1 in 4 meet the target for math readiness.

A total of 7,169 students graduated with STEM degrees in 2016, a slight but disturbing drop from the year before.

The newly created La.-STEM Advisory Council, which is trying to ignite the issue statewide, will need the kind of funding source experts say is essential for a breakthrough.

Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, who sponsored the bill that set up the council, said she is optimistic the push will help transform Louisiana's economy, create high-wage jobs and narrow the wage gap between men and women.

"This year, we are kind of getting our game plan together," Hewitt said.

The 29-member council, which has met four times, is grappling with some fundamental issues needed for any sort of an education sea change.

Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Rallo, a member of the panel, said at the last council meeting that no one relishes the state's slot near the bottom of key education rankings.

He said more focus is needed on how to get students qualified for STEM programs, not whether they are eligible now.

"We need to be asking questions on how to get them in and get them through," he said.

Rallo said STEM carries "a certain sense of elitism" and needs to be available to more students, and well before high school.

"People hear that word and they automatically think about engineers and scientists in white coats and things like that," he said in an interview.

Lupe Lamadrid, senior policy analyst for the Louisiana Board of Regents, made the same point.

"We have to start earlier," Lamadrid said. "We have to change the culture."

The council's mission is anything but modest.

It is supposed to craft a statewide STEM plan, including career opportunities, and align those goals with elementary, secondary and post-secondary programs.

Landing dollars in a STEM Education Fund is another aim, no easy task amid the state's latest, $1 billion-plus shortfall.

The council is set to make its first recommendations to the Legislature next month.

One of the keys to any gains, backers say, is to partner with industries that stand to benefit.

"And I believe that industry will support this, as industry always does, because the thing that industry needs the most is a trained workforce," Hewitt said.

"They are going to invest dollars to get help to train their workforce," she said.

Lamadrid said LSU's partnership with Lee Magnet High School in Baton Rouge could serve as a template for the state. LSU offers a STEM Pathway Program that is allowing students to take pre-engineering classes this year.

Offering STEM teachers financial incentives is one option, Rallo said.

Lamadrid said California sparked interest in STEM fields by making information available at after-school programs.

The state's effort comes at a time when similar plans have failed elsewhere.

"In many instances, after convening and developing policy recommendations the STEM council disbands and the recommendations are shelved," according to a report by the Education Commission of the States.

Where the effort has worked is when it got the interest of the governor's office, state lawmakers and industries. Idaho allows tax credits for STEM contributions. Nevada has a STEM "champion" in the governor's office.  Iowa's STEM advisory council includes an executive director and 3.5 full-time employees.

Hewitt said that to spark the interest of students, math and science have to be seen in everyday activities.

"We change the culture of how we learn science and math," she said.

"So it is not just about learning out of a textbook, but it is the application, where they see all of the things that they are learning with a science or math principal in their everyday lives," Hewitt said.

Rallo said he has a teenage nephew in Connecticut who hated math.

But after falling in love with restoring 1960s muscle cars, he learned math is a key ingredient to doing the overhauls.

"All of a sudden, the light switch is on," Rallo said. "You have to make (STEM) so it is not droning on about algebra."

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.