Priming the Pipeline for STEM in the South: STEM Status in Louisiana

The American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture announced in late February the STEM coordinators selected for its “On the Farm” Experience later this month in Nashville, Tennessee. Louisiana’s only recipient is Kendra Renae Pullen, the K-6 curriculum instructional specialist for Caddo Parish Public Schools in Shreveport. The event will provide educators real-world experience connecting science to the beef industry. The goal is to give educators tools to effectively teach science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM courses.

A recent report indicating how well states are doing in preparing K-12 students for the STEM fields rated Louisiana “far below average.” The state by state “Science Readiness Index” takes into consideration not only students’ math and science proficiency scores but also teacher qualifications.

Credit: LPB

Credit: LPB

“Currently we’re working on an anti-bullying video for the school board.”

“I’m designing a website for University Elementary School, another school in the parish.”

“When you click on the blue dots, it tells you who was buried there; it tells you their history, what they’re known for.”

Over the course of a year, these students in Shreveport’s Southwood High School received a hands-on experience in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields. The course uses what’s called the EAST approach; a self-directed exploration of STEM careers.

“I don’t really teach in this class, I facilitate them teaching themselves.” says Lloyd Rushing.

Rushing says students develop projects that serve their community while receiving real-life experience in areas such as video editing, architecture, animation design and the use of geographical information systems.

“This class allows them to open up a tool box.” notes Rushing. “Say here’s a toolbox full of great tools that all relate to STEM and make you money after high school; take each tool out; find which one you like and lets concentrate on learning that tool.”

The EAST program is one of several initiatives that Caddo Parish instituted in the nineties after the loss of manufacturing jobs. For the last ten years, STEM jobs have been growing nationally at three times the rate of non-STEM occupations. The state will need to fill 69,000 STEM-related jobs by 2018. But research shows that Louisiana educators still lag behind the nation in content knowledge and training in the STEM fields.

“We believe that teachers are the key to systemic and sustainable change,” says G.B. Cazes.

G. B. Cazes is vice president of the Cyber Innovation Center in Bossier-City. Built to diversify the area’s economic base through the world of computers, the Center has also created professional development strategies to better prepare educators to train tomorrow’s workforce. Known as the National Integrated Cyber Education Research Center, or NICERC for short, its programs are offered to teachers statewide. ‘

“We work with teachers and provide them mentoring relationships and materials and resources,” Cazes says, “and create a network of teachers on these new frontiers and on these new ways to learn, project-driven education models; integrated curriculum. “

Guided by staff at Louisiana Tech, teachers in NICERC’s “Cyber Discovery Program” learn how to engage students in STEM subjects by using robotics. Julie Malone teaches Science at North Caddo Magnet School.

She says, “They have to build the robots; they have to design it; the mathematics you have to understand distance; how do I make it code it; and technology they’re using computers; they’re using computers all the time and then science.”

Industries like Dow Chemical Company and ExxonMobil are also providing classroom resources and sponsoring teachers for professional development, Glasgow Middle School Science teacher Lauraleigh Cefalu, attended the Sally Ride Science Academy in California on the industry’s dime. She also received their support when organizing her school’s “STEM Family Night” to promote careers in Math and Science.

“It was a big success; a lot of work but the kids loved it.” Cefalu says, “And it sparked a lot of interest that a textbook cannot do. And it was free!”

Regional robotics competitions and programs such as Barksdale’s “Starbase Louisiana” are other ways the state is trying to ignite students; passion in STEM and it’s “out-of-this-world” career opportunities.

“It was definitely a rush on the moment of landing to see everything we’ve worked so hard on for the last seven to ten years all execute so flawlessly right down to the surface of Mars.” says Keith Comeaux.

Comeaux is a Louisiana native, LSU graduate and the flight director of NASA’s Curiosity rover that landed on Mars. He says not even “the sky is the limit” in the world of Science.

“Students should get energized about Science because Science is our future; Science drives a lot of the economic development that we see but it also drives our curiosity.” Comeaux notes, “I think a human’s nature is to explore and I think Science is one way we can do that.”

The Southern Education Desk is supported by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Related: Other stories in our “Priming the Pipeline for STEM in the South” series.

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