Louisiana needs more young women trained in science, technology, engineering and math, a panel at the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry Conference Center in Baton Rouge agreed.

But consensus on the age at which girls should be encouraged to pursue STEM skills wasn’t reached Friday after the costs of technology and teacher training entered the discussion.

Longtime Ruston educator Connie Bradford, one of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s three appointees to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said mentoring programs are “a fabulous way to get our students and girls engaged.”

Bradford said she once experimented with STEM education by having her seventh-grade students teach science and math to third-graders.

“It was a win-win,” Bradford said. She said the seventh-graders studied hard to avoid having to admit they couldn’t answer questions from third-graders. She said the third-graders studied at least as hard in their efforts to impress the older students.

Gloria Thomas, executive director of research, education and mentoring programs at LSU’s Office of Strategic Initiatives, noted that LSU undergraduates mentor high school and middle school students in Baton Rouge.

LSU also is involved in Baton Rouge Community College programs that encourage students to pursue studies and careers in biomedical research, Thomas said.

Thomas said LSU’s chemistry department now has the nation’s second-highest number of women pursuing doctorates in chemistry.

“We’re starting to reach gender equality,” Thomas said.

Vidaly Williams, a chemical engineer at ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge Refinery, said company employees volunteer 40,000 hours annually to work with students at Baton Rouge-area schools.

ExxonMobil and other companies involved in current industrial expansions in Louisiana need many more workers with STEM skills than are currently available, Williams said.

ExxonMobil coaches elementary school students in the hope that they will focus on STEM skills, Williams said. She said Louisiana residents should know STEM-job salaries are about twice the size of non-STEM wages.

Czarina Walker, who founded the firm that became InfiniEDGE Software Inc. when she was 19, said girls must be encouraged to pursue knowledge in technology, science and math when they begin elementary school.

“I was around people who were very supportive,” Walker said. “We took things (computers) apart, and we weren’t afraid of breaking them.”

The excitement of learning how computers operate, however, didn’t last long.

“I became bored with technology at about age 7 or 8 or 9,” Walker said.

By the time she was headed to college, Walker said, “I didn’t know what I really wanted to do.”

She went to work at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, though, and discovered center employees were writing their own computer codes.

“I realized I really, really enjoyed this field,” Walker said. That discovery led to establishment of her own company.

Walker said technology company complaints about a shortage of qualified tech workers are not overblown.

Whenever she learns of a company moving to Baton Rouge, where the firm will need 600 technology workers, Walker tells herself: “I hope they’re bringing 599 with them.”

Regardless of gender, Walker said, “We have a shortage of people in my field.”

Walker said early elementary education needs two things: teachers trained in technology and updated computers with sufficient power and memory.

Training teachers and replacing outdated computers costs lots of money, Walker said; however, feeding early elementary students interesting STEM information would mean many more STEM-skilled college students of both genders.

Don’t ignore the importance of a balanced education, Walker said. She said she might not have found success as a business owner if she had not practiced writing and other communication skills necessary for management of a company.

“I was very lucky to have teachers who pushed me to write,” Walker recalled.

“Writing is a muscle,” Walker said. “You use it, you get better, you are successful.”

At a technology company, Walker added, “There is a whole lot going on besides science and technology.”