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Representation in reading: how a JEP book project is helping South L.A. kids see themselves as scientists

A new book series release is helping to give local youth new access to fresh STEAM education.

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Through a new project, USC’s Joint Educational Project (JEP) and Room to Read will distribute 90,000 books throughout South L.A. to children in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Spearheaded by Dieuwertje “DJ” Kast, director of the STEM education programs at USC JEP, the book program works to provide children in the surrounding communities with science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics content (STEAM) that is both easily accessible and relatable to South L.A. kids, she says.

“[T]he community we work with is predominantly Latinx and Black, and it is really difficult to try and find science kids books that actually feature characters that look like our kids,” Kast said.

Kast was inspired to begin this project over two years ago and see it through. Along the way, she recruited the help of numerous USC scientists, faculty and staff to create a book series that now includes 10 different STEAM-related topics, ranging from oncology to data science and engineering.

Each book is divided into two parts with one half using fictional characters to explain a given STEAM topic, while the second half profiles a project contributor who describes aspects of their career. These details include “day in the life” routines, STEAM career opportunities and vocabulary lists.

“There was an obvious need to have … these characters to come into fruition” according to Maria Madrigal, an employee of the USC Dornsife Sea Grant and author of the marine biology book.

“You just can’t easily find a book about a student of color highlighted,” she says.

As part of this push for STEAM accessibility, all 10 of the books from this project are available online, and Spanish translations are forthcoming, Kast says.

Despite the two-year process to get these books out, those involved viewed it all as a worthwhile undertaking because of the impact it will have on South L.A. kids.

As part of the project rollout, Kast and other contributors handed out copies of the series to kids on 32nd street Thursday.

“It was a dream come true,” Kast said. She was ecstatic to be “seeing this idea from start to finish, and then seeing how happy the kids were to be receiving these books that [had characters who] actually look like them.”

Stacey Finley, a professor of biomedical engineering at Viterbi and author of the data science book in the project, explained how she kept her three children in mind when working on her writing.

“When I wrote the book, I had [my kids] in mind because I wanted them to see scientists and characters that they could relate to,” she said.

Darin Gray, another Viterbi professor and featured scientist in the engineering book in the project, described the importance the books have on how kids in these communities view those who work in STEAM and how they can get involved in the field.

“[The kids] get to see not only themselves in the STEM fields,” he said, “but they also get a chance to see how STEM can impact their specific community.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the grade levels that this program serves. Annenberg Media regrets this error.