Math and science get new push

Just a year ago, more than 500 parents, students and teachers attended a math and science expo in Baton Rouge.

Now college and business officials are turning it into a statewide event, part of a wider effort to improve student performance in science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM.

The aim of the Nov. 2 gathering is to attract public, private and homeschool students in grades 5-8 to Kenilworth Science and Technology Charter School, which hosted the event last year.

But beyond that, organizers hope that their coalition the website is called L-STEM and other steps will serve as a clearinghouse to promote STEM statewide, including events, best practices and better teacher interaction.

As it is now, activities on all four subjects are too isolated, said Michelle Haj-Broussard, an associate professor in McNeese State University’s Department of Education and a member of L-STEM’s advisory panel.

“Everyone sort of works in their own silo,” Broussard said.

“We really need to be on the same page,” she said. “L-STEM offers a place for that. It is basically a place where you can get all things STEM in Louisiana.”

Eugene Kennedy, an LSU professor and one of the architects of the effort, said he envisions the expo and website as the start of an effort that paves the way for a heightened focus on STEM, including student mentoring.

“It started with me and the administrators at Kenilworth,” Kennedy said in response to a question. “I saw that it was working and there is a need throughout the state to start these kinds of things,” he said, referring to the expo.

Next month’s statewide event is a first step, said Tevfik Eski, superintendent of Kenilworth and program director of the expo.

“You must have a statewide presence to make a statewide impact, and that’s what L-STEM does,” Eski said in a prepared statement.

Next month’s expo will allow students to compete in chemistry, life sciences, physics, math or technology.

Students will work with their teachers or mentors to prepare demonstrations.

The work will be judged by university and business volunteers, with winners and their teachers getting prizes.

Finding a way to share STEM resources with a wide audience is a key goal, said Elkhan Akhundov, who teaches eighth-grade science at Kenilworth.

“Sharing is a big thing,” Akhundov said.

STEM has become a hot topic in public education circles, especially amid predictions that demand for science, math and other experts will far outstrip supply.

In 2010, then-state Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek hired Guillermo Ferreyra, an LSU math professor, to elevate the importance and attention that STEM was getting in Louisiana.

The effort included professional development for science teachers, tips on how schools could apply for grants and other steps, Ferreyra said.

He said LSU got a $5 million grant a few years ago to help train high school math and science teachers.

Ferreyra, who is interim dean of the College of Science at LSU, left his state department post in 2012.

STEM remains an agency priority, with specialists in offices statewide rather than a single office in Baton Rouge, said Barry Landry, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.

Landry said the state also gives schools extra points in its annual evaluations for subjects such as advanced math and science.

The executive director of the Greater Baton Rouge Industry Alliance, Connie Fabre, echoed Broussard’s view that worthwhile activities “are already going on in several different silos.”

Fabre, a L-STEM board member, noted Shell Chemical has hosted an event for science teachers; ExxonMobil has invited students for a science get together and LSU hosts a “Super Science Saturday” event.

She said L-STEM can make those and other events part of a central information center and widen participation.

Students who want to register for the Nov. 2 expo can do so at www.lastemexpo.org.

The deadline is Oct. 18.