Diversifying STEM based Children’s books
Representation matters. The data has shown that representation of yourself in the scientists you see in front of you influences your own science identity and how much you persist in STEM fields. In that department, children’s literature is failing students. A study published in 2018, stated that half of all childrens books reviewed featured white main characters, and that there were more non-human characters (27%) then there were for all minorities combined (23%). In their study 10% of the childrens books featured an African American/ Black main character, and 5% featured a Latinx one. How are students from BIPOC communities supposed to envision themselves as scientists when the kids’ books they are presented feature mostly white main characters?
The JEP STEM education programs have written STEM curricula for many years. Especially for the Wonderkids Program, we try to pair children’s books with the content that’s being presented, especially books that feature main characters of color. I’ve had a running list of books we’ve needed that just don’t exist. USC Dornsife and JEP alumni Jocelyn Artuega recently worked with nonprofit publisher and global education organization Room to Read to publish a book for their Peace and Equality Book Collection and shared that amazing accomplishment on social media. DJ inquired about all these details and afterwards they pitched the STEAM career series to Room to Read together. Room to Read loved the idea and made both of our dreams come true by publishing the STEAM-Powered Careers Book Collection, a series that features three main characters of color Jae, Mia, and Cora (Asian Male, Latina female, and Black Female characters).
University wide collaborations (USC Dornsife Joint Educational Project, USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, USC Viterbi School of Engineering, USC Rossier, USC Keck School of Medicine) were brought together to create 10 STEM-themed (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) children’s books to educate elementary school students on the variety of ground-breaking, exciting, and diverse STEM careers. With the shared goal of creating a collection of informative and illustrative children’s books with the help of BIPOC scientists, exploring topics ranging from polar science to gastroenterology to nanotechnology, we hope to inspire readers to consider STEM opportunities and interests. Selected authors interviewed featured working scientists who are affiliated with USC, who are knowledgeable of their field to develop strong narratives through a day-in-the-life lens; highlight the brief history, present, and future of their unique field; and offer resources and more information, as well as curriculum for classroom use. The series focuses on the topics below and is available in English and in Spanish. Digital copies of the books are available on the Room to Read website and each of them has a lesson plan that elementary teachers can teach with in conjunction with the books. STEAM Career Topics: Oncology, Polar Science, Virtual Reality, Data Science, Engineering, Occupational Therapy, Marine Biology, Gastroenterology, Nanotechnology, and Heart Surgery.
“It is a huge honor to contribute to this initiative to show that STEAM careers are accessible to everyone. When the students received the books, they were amazed to see diverse scientists! “Representation matters” is not a cliché – kids need to *see* what’s possible in order to strive for it. I am sure the books will have a real, long-lasting impact.” said Dr. Stacey Finley, the author and scientist of the Data Science book.
- DJ Kast (USC Dornsife & Rossier alumna, current JEP STEM staff)
- Jasmin Sanchez (USC Dornsife and JEP alumna)
- Brooke McMahon (USC Rossier and JEP alumna)
- W. Martin Kast (USC Keck & Norris)
- Sean Taitt (USC Educational Partnerships – Kinder2College)
- Maria Madrigal (USC Dornsife – USC Sea Grant)
- Stacey Finley (USC Dornsife, Viterbi, & Norris)
- Brittany Acevedo (USC Dornsife & Rossier alumna)
- Dijanna Figueroa
- CaTameron Bobino
- Dr. Darin Gray (USC Viterbi)
- DJ Fernandez (USC Keck & USC Norris)
- Jasmin Sanchez (USC Dornsife, NAI Scholar and JEP alumna)
- Dr. DJ Kast (USC Dornsife, JEP)
- Jocelyn Argueta (USC Dornsife and JEP Alumna)
- Dr. Alina Garcia Taormina (USC Dornsife Alumna)
- Charnelle Wickliff
- Sharon Mozgai (Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT))
- Dr. Ram Subramanyan (USC Keck School of Medicine)
- Takeshi Saito (USC Keck School of Medicine and USC Norris)
In collaboration with USC’s education programs, Room to Read sent 9,000 sets (with 10 titles that’s 90,000 books) to various STEM education programs in the Los Angeles area to address book desert issues for low-income students of color and to add to their home libraries. Some of these programs included: the USC Joint Educational Project STEM Education programs, Kinder2 College, the Viterbi K-12 STEM Center, the USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative, USC Seagrant, USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, USC Educational Partnerships and more.
Sean Taitt, director of USC Kinder2College and author of the Heart Surgery book said “holding a copy of the book was a magical moment. I can’t believe our efforts produced this hard copy. Flipping through pages and learning about Cora’s mom. I get goosebumps thinking about it. Not to mention the students learning about their heart as they read. I’m hoping that this book can make someone want to become a surgeon in some capacity. Honestly, as I am not a surgeon myself, I’d like to get kids to think about a career in education. As that is what led me to this point in time”.
In an effort to mass distribute the books quickly, the JEP STEM Education Programs hosted book assemblies at our 7 partner schools: 32nd St Performing Arts Magnet, Foshay Learning Center, Vermont Avenue Elementary, Dr. Theodore Alexander Science Center School, Norwood Street Elementary, John Mack Elementary and Lenicia B. Weemes Elementary. Each school features a different author/ scientist pair showcase their own book. The first assembly at 32nd St was focused on occupational therapy and was written by USC JEP alumna and NAI scholar Jasmin Sanchez who is from the South Central Los Angeles community herself.
A 3rd grade teacher at 32nd St named Ms. Reed had this to say about the assembly “the book assembly was great. The students enjoyed seeing characters that looked like them. They also liked the fact that the authors were there. The students and myself loved the book assembly.” Additionally, Nelly Cristales, second grade teacher and USC liaison coordinator said “Students’ smiles and excitement as they received the 10 STEM-themed children’s books to educate them on different STEM careers was priceless. The impact it will have in their lives will take place as a seed which in time will bloom and reflect in their career choices as they grow up.”
YSP Alumni Jasmin Sanchez had this to say about being an author with Room to Read:
“Reading my Occupational Therapy book to 500+ students from my community was a dream come true. When I was in Kindergarten I told my teacher I wanted to write children books and be a doctor. I’m halfway there now.
As I read my book to the children I couldn’t help but think about myself when I was in elementary school. I loved reading but my parents didn’t have extra time to take me to the library or the money to buy me all the books I wanted. It was also hard to explain what I was reading to my parents because neither one of them could read in English. These barriers made book discussions challenging.This is why I love the STEAM series so much, because we wrote everything in English and Spanish. To help the ELD students and the Spanish speaking families. We even created lesson plans that go along with the books so parents and guardians could assist their children. Within each book the stories and characters are incredibly inclusive which I love. All the characters were ethnically diverse so the readers could feel represented as the characters in the books pursued STEAM related endeavors.
I wrote about Occupational Therapy because it’s the professional career I am pursuing. I think it’s wonderful and I believe more OT’s should work within the South Los Angeles community. By writing my book I am hoping to bring awareness to the field. I want more people to know what OT’s do so they can pursue their career or seek their services because it’s a super helpful profession. I can go on and on about why I wrote the book and what it means to me but I want to share what it means to someone who heard me read the book. After the reading one of the school employees stopped me to thank me for writing the book. She was also born and raised in South Los Angeles, and had never read a book that had ethnically diverse characters. She thanked me for writing the book and giving back to the community. She told me I was making a difference and that I had impacted the lives of many people that day. Her words almost brought me to tears because that’s exactly what I want to do as an OT. I want to help my community feel heard and help every person I can. I want to give back to my community because they have given so much to me.”