Profile picture and text: 50 FOR 50 STORIES: Story #17: Dr. DJ KastStory #17: Dr. Dieuwertje “DJ” Kast

We sat down with JEP’s Director of STEM Education Programs, who has been with JEP for 15 years herself, and – as many other current staff members – started with JEP as a student.

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me! So you live and breathe STEM and have been with JEP’s STEM Education Programs for years now – can you tell me a little bit about your personal journey from the start to now? 

I started getting involved with JEP in 2007 during my freshman year and then did a total of four assignments as a service-learning volunteer in the next two years. Two years later, I got involved with the Young Scientists Program which, back then, was led by Nadine Afari. I was hired to teach fourth-grade classrooms. I worked with Vermont Elementary with teachers like Ms. Elsa Campos who is still hosting YSP TA’s in her classroom. I loved working in science and ocean education even then. After I graduated, I worked as an ocean and outdoor educator for USC Wrigley’s QuikSCience program for a few years. I also worked with JEP, Readerplus & Tina to create the Wonderkids program on a volunteer basis in 2014. So when Nadine was offered a position elsewhere in 2014, she reached out to me and asked since I had worked with JEP & YSP and was in the field of education, if I was available to take over for her and I said yes. And now, here we are: I am now the Director of STEM Education Programs which encompasses Wonderkids, the Young Scientists Program and the Medical STEM Program.

Throughout this journey – how did you and how do you continue to identify how the STEM programs can make the biggest or most helpful impact at that time?

JEP has so many relationships within the community, like with our schools and non-profit partners. Asking what they want and need from USC is a key factor to my work. We ask for feedback every single semester, in multiple languages and via different methods, and we’re so lucky that our partners continue to let us know how we can best work together.

You run three distinct JEP programs now, hold frequent workshops for teachers, attend conferences, publish articles… and now you are publishing a series of STEM books – that must be exhausting. What motivates you when you feel like things are getting stressful? 

My family is a major source of motivation for me, they always encouraged me to provide service to others. I feel like it has become my mission to level the playing field and I feel like everything I do works toward that mission. The more I do the more we get the word out about our model of university-to-school partnership to be adopted nationwide or even beyond. It motivates me to see the impact.

Now I know you have something big on the way besides all of the great things you do professionally – you’re going to have another baby! What are some things in today’s reality that you would love to work on, both on and off the job, for your son Grayson, the new kid, and all the other kids that are really our future? 

Well, Grayson already has such a village who will support him and I am very lucky and very privileged. Not just my and my husband’s family but also the JEP and Trojan family. As you know, Grayson is probably the most science-dressed baby and I don’t plan to change this for our new baby. I feel like my book series will be such a great legacy gift for both of them and give them the power to do whatever they want to go into and continue the work. I would also love to see our programs get established nation wide to have this impact reach beyond.

This will be a hard question to answer, but aside from your real babies, I know all of your programs are truly your babies right now. Do you have a favorite memory you can share about each of them?

I really loved doing some of our after school workshops and events.

For YSP one of my favorite moments was our technology workshop with my husband about drones. We had 3D printers and Sandboxes and VR at that same workshop about emerging technologies. I don’t know if the kids would have access to this at their home so that way they know it’s out there and they can look forward to working on things like that.

For WK it would be from the the Spring 2020 semester. One of our 4th-grade students Nicole loves doing art and her art is amazing, we blew her mind when we told her that science art is an actual career choice. When we brought in a real astronaut who won her place on the spaceship because of her science art, she was so inspired!

For MSP the one that comes to mind the most is we did a cancer awareness workshop at Weemes Elementary where we brought two cancer survivors – including my mom who wore a wonder woman costume and LatinX woman Jeseme Lopez – survivors who spoke to the kids. Having them interact was so special and helped the kids understand that cancer is not always a death sentence.

As I just said, you are so passionate about your programs, your work, your vision for the world – but I know you also come from a passionate Trojan family who all studied or work on different subjects at USC. Where do you see opportunities to collaborate more with all the different departments on campus? 

JEP has worked with so many different departments and the STEM programs are no different. We’ve been working with a lot of faculty to translate their research into a curriculum for elementary teachers. We bring in a lot of scientists from different fields into our Wonderkids programing, our YSP workshops and our Medical STEM program with the cancer center. We prioritize as much as possible featuring scientists of color that look like our students, women and scientists of varying abilities so that students can see themselves in who we put in front of them.

You also work closely with other organizations, programs, and donors – what do you wish they – and other people – knew about your work that they maybe don’t? 

I would love for them to know how amazing our student STEM education team is. They work SO hard on everything. I would love to be able to have them see more of it in action. During COVID funders could come to Wonderkids sessions and I would love to show that more – the team’s great work in action.

How can people who are interested in supporting our STEM programs in the future get involved? What do you want to achieve with their help? 

There are so many different ways to support the STEM programs – primarily funding. We need it to maintain or programs, and if possible expand it, as we have heard from the community that there is a need to have all of our programs available for grades K-5 but it requires additional funding for staff and supplies. But you can also donate your time – volunteer, help with organization, supplies, help and expertise on lesson plans, come to our events to speak, virtually contributing time. I’m always happy to put people to work!

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me once again – is there anything else you’d love to share? 

I’m just really grateful for JEP in general, for all the opportunities that being at JEP has allowed me. We have such a great full-time staff team and an amazing director who allows this progress that I am so passionate about. The JEP family is real.