JEP Graduate Student Star Shines Bright During the Astrobiology Teacher PD Workshop

by Kathrin Rising

Workshop attendees posing for a group photo
Maya was excited to see many familiar faces among the workshop attendees

It’s not uncommon for undergraduate students to discover their passion for a certain subject or teaching during their assignments with the Joint Educational Project (JEP). But did you know that JEP also offers exciting opportunities for graduate students who want to dive deeper into their passionate academic endeavors? In turn, they enrich JEP’s programs with their knowledge in all kinds of different fields. Maya Yanez, 2022-2023 STEM Fellow and PhD candidate in USC Dornsife’s Earth Sciences department is a perfect example of that.

While Maya’s main responsibility with our JEP STEM Education Program layed in spearheading the WonderKids program, she also created our newest teacher Professional Development (PD) workshop. These workshops, intended to inspire and support teachers from the schools JEP works with, are focused on STEM subjects and have covered fascinating subjects like Climate Change or Oncology in the past. During her own workshop, Maya of course took the participants on a captivating journey through the wonders of astrobiology – the subject she is currently researching for her doctoral program.

Hands rolling fruit roll ups and rice krispy treats in sprinkles
A delicious model of Saturn in the making – built from crispy treats, sprinkles, and fruit roll-ups

The workshop’s primary focus was on creating engaging lessons for 2nd to 5th graders, which aligns with age group that our JEP’s STEM Education Programs work with. However, the workshop also attracted High School teachers, underscoring Maya’s ability to connect with educators across various grade levels. The workshop was filled with exciting activities and hands-on experiments. Attendees also had the opportunity to explore Maya’s lab and gain firsthand experience in astrobiology research. The workshop showcased innovative teaching techniques, such as using everyday snacks like fruit roll-ups and rice krispy treats to explain the creation of planets and their rings. These interactive lessons equip teachers with the skills to make complex scientific concepts accessible and enjoyable for young learners.

Person rolling crunched up rice crispy treat in sprinkles.
Our attendees were excited to try the different experiments themselves.

The workshop participants not only had fun but also gained valuable knowledge and inspiration. One High School teacher enthusiastically shared, “I learned so much about space and how it relates to our planet. Seeing how much fun we had with the different experiments,, I think my students would be just as engaged to learn about it.” This is exactly what the workshops are intended to do; creating a ripple effect, benefiting both teachers and their students. The collaboration between JEP and graduate students like Maya Yanez is mutually beneficial. Through the Teacher PD Workshop, graduate fellows gain practical experience in their fields while interacting with educators and community members. These opportunities allow for personal growth and contribute to the overall success of JEP’s STEM Education Programs.

However, JEP’s STEM grad fellows, like Maya, also gain knowledge and contribute to JEP’s success in other important ways. One great example is Maya’s involvement in leading the WonderKids program, from creating the curriculum and lesson plans to sharing her knowledge with the children in our programs. She shared that her favorite part of her year with JEP STEM was made up of those experiences.

A group of people standing in front of different materials, listening to presenter.
Another fun exercise that our participants were able to learn about.

“It was so rewarding to help the kids not just understand how the world works and what our place in the universe is, but also make it accessible for them. Like, seeing a group of kids aged 5-10 realize that it’s not the sun moving in the sky but it is our own planet, which blew their mind, was amazing.” Maya shared. She also remarked that working with the community close to USC was something that fulfilled her, because she identified with them in many ways. This goes to show that the effort JEP puts forward to hire students of all different backgrounds benefits not only the kids we work with, but also our student staff: “It means a lot to me to be able to work with kids that share some of my background. I grew up not too far from USC, I’m Latina, and so are many of the children in our programs, so it’s great that we can relate to each other in that way.”

To read more articles that were featured in the Spring 2023 Edition of “What’s new at the JEP House?” please click here: What’s new at the JEP House? – 2023 Spring Edition