GNOrocs: Developing a strong STEM Ecosystem

Louisiana Invests in STEM Education
African Scientist, Medical Worker Or Tech In Modern Laboratory

When it comes to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education (STEM), our region is shooting for the moon. The Louisiana legislature has appropriated millions of dollars to advance regional STEM education efforts throughout the state. 

The funding increase is the latest development in legislative efforts that started in 2017 with the drafting and ultimate passage of Act 392, which provided the groundwork to determine who would sit on the LaSTEM Advisory Council. Now, the STEM Network is fully established and moving towards the goal of providing “cradle to grave” STEM educational opportunities throughout the state.

“The benefits to the state are already being realized,” says Dr. Clint Coleman, program administrator of LaSTEM at the Louisiana Board of Regents, a state agency that coordinates all public higher education in Louisiana. He points to successful programs such as virtual summer camps and regional collaborative projects that are bringing STEM opportunities to the communities across the state. “This summer, our NASA Astro camps had hundreds of ‘in person’ and virtual participants from all over Louisiana. Students from 31 other states and 10 countries participated.”

In addition, new STEM outreach programs in areas such as drones, robotics and e-sports are being established at regional STEM centers across Louisiana this year, illustrating a forward-looking focus as well. “These types of applied learning opportunities will ultimately move the needle for STEM education in the state,” Coleman says.

In 2020, LaSTEM received its first allocated funding , which was used to start up nine regional STEM centers around the state, including one at GNO, Inc., which represents “Region 1” and includes Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. James, and St. John the Baptist  parishes. The “Greater New Orleans Region One Center for STEM, also known as GNOrocs” aims to reduce the STEM gap within our community by creating an interconnected ecosystem with K-12, higher education, and business and industry to develop a robust, talented pipeline of highly skilled workers that will retain and attract business to the Greater New Orleans region. In 2021, the funding was doubled to provide additional support across the state’s STEM Centers.

“Louisiana’s focus on STEM education is exactly what our great state needs to continue moving forward,” says Coleman. “Current and future jobs in the state will require employees to understand the technology and think critically on the job.”

The state’s renewed focus on STEM education has benefits that extend beyond just pure economics. In addition to boosting student interest in science, technology, engineering and math to meet the needs of an evolving workforce, it’ll also increase the number of women and people of color with degrees in STEM-related industries, closing the opportunity gap for underrepresented and underserved populations.

“Women are very underrepresented in these fields,” says Sharon Hewitt, the State Senator who sponsored the bill that created the Louisiana Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Advisory Council. A mechanical engineering graduate, Hewitt was a STEM student herself. She says that women only make up 16 percent of engineering, 12 percent of physics, and 23 percent of graduates. Men account for 33 percent of STEM graduates as compared to 10 percent for women. 

Hewitt says these inequities start in early childhood. “We know that part of the problem is we can’t just start at the high school level,” she says. “You really have to start at the elementary level in creating an interest and building the skills.”

That’s exactly what LaSTEM and GNOrocs aim to accomplish. 

“We see STEM education more broadly,” Coleman says. “There are three major categories our STEM Centers focus on: K-12th grade, college and university, and the workforce. Prior to LaSTEM, there were only unofficial channels to communicate and collaborate with like-minded individuals. This created an unintentional silo effect, where the great STEM work at individual schools and community organizations was unable to grow.”   

One of GNOrocs’s successful STEM partners in the region is STEM NOLA, founded in 2013 by New Orleans native and former tenured Tulane University engineering professor Dr. Calvin Mackie. 

“We’re trying to make New Orleans ground zero for hands-on STEM engagement for this country, if not for the world,” Mackie says. 

Mackie says he was inspired to start the organization after teaching STEM to his own children. “My son came home one day and he said, ‘Daddy I don’t like science’ and I said, ‘Son, we have to fix that.’ We started doing STEM in the garage on Saturdays. Then my friends started bringing their kids over, and my neighbors started bringing their kids, and before you know it we had 20 kids in the garage doing STEM.”

After seeing how successful his little garage operation was going, Mackie decided to expand. “I realized that maybe we had something to offer the broader community,” he says. He and his wife, Tracy, put up $100,000 of their own money and started STEM NOLA. Their first event was in New Orleans East for 100 students.

Their organization has since expanded to hundreds of students and is currently renovating a 42,000 square foot building into a STEM Innovation hub. They’ve also expanded their capability to reach more eager students. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization pivoted to virtual classes, where they engaged with kids from 47 states and five countries, including Ghana, Senegal, and the UK. 

Mackie says the model created by STEM NOLA is “scalable, transferable and reproducible, but more importantly, sustainable.” He points to the fact that organizations around the world are already looking to replicate their system as evidence of their success. They recently received a grant from the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania to create the equivalent of a “STEM Tanzania.”

In October, New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell selected Bayou Phoenix LLC as the developer of the former Six Flags and Jazzland site. Partnering with STEM NOLA, the Bayou Phoenix plan includes a STEM education center, as well as a hotel, waterpark, amusement park, sports complex and a warehouse and distribution center. 

Just four miles away from the STEM Innovation hub location, the new education center will fit into what Mackie calls a “STEM district,” which he said will be the “most expansive effort in America to bring STEM education to Black and Brown children and adults.” Needless to say, he has big plans for the project. 

“We’re looking to create the ‘Epcot’ of STEM,” he says of the proposed education center, which he calls an “edu-tainment facility.” “We are trying to build a futuristic site where people in the region can come and be exposed to STEM. Let them be entertained at the same time by the environment in which they live, and let them see the possibilities of the future in careers while having fun.”

The Greater New Orleans region is home to many strong STEM ecosystem partners, eager to create a strong workforce for the jobs of today, and of tomorrow. With the success of STEM NOLA, a diverse set of STEM focused non-profits, and a robust higher education community in the region means GNO, Inc. already has a strong foundation in which to build upon with the work of the regional STEM center, GNOrocs. As access to these resources is expanded, Louisiana will cultivate a more fair and equitable educational environment, inspiring a new generation of young minds and producing a workforce ready to handle the ever-evolving challenges of the modern world.