Brandon Ramirez of Hyundai Motor America helps a young student perfect his hydrogen-fueled model car. (Photos: Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging.)

Fueling dreams: USC Dornsife and Hyundai propel young minds into futures in science

The collaboration aims to help encourage K-12 students in the neighborhoods surrounding USC to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.
ByTaline Rumaya

Future scientists, start your engines! This fall, fifth-grade students from across Los Angeles built their own hydrogen-powered cars as part of an electrifying collaboration between the Joint Educational Project (JEP) at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and Hyundai Motors.

Armed with wrenches and curiosity, students learned how to build model hydrogen cars from top to bottom and raced their creations to see whose car was designed the best. Students also explored Hyundai’s hydrogen-powered SUV, the NEXO.

The workshop took place as part of JEP’s Young Scientists Program (YSP), which aims to address a critical lack of science education in the elementary schools JEP serves by bringing scientific laboratory experiences directly to students and their teachers.

A legacy of service

Local elementary school students built hydrogen-fuel model cars with the help of USC Dornsife’s Joint Educational Project and Hyundai Motors

For more than 50 years, JEP has connected USC students with the surrounding community through enduring partnerships and collaborations with K-12 schools, nonprofit organizations and health care centers to address community-defined needs.

The Young Scientists Program is a crucial part of this work, recruiting undergraduate and graduate students to serve as teaching assistants in seven USC community schools. Each year, YSP engages more than 2,400 elementary students and 85 LAUSD teachers through hands-on science lessons that connect scientific theory taught in the classroom with real-world practice in students’ everyday lives.

“Our Young Scientists Program aims to level the playing field for students, providing a more equitable and accessible STEM experience that we hope will encourage them to consider STEM careers,” said Dieuwertje Kast, director of JEP’s STEM Education Programs.

Investing in the future of green engineering

Hyundai recently invested $12.6 billion in electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing in Georgia. Building pipelines for underrepresented groups to see themselves in EV engineering careers was a natural next step.

“It all comes down to our global vision of ‘progress for humanity,’” said Brandon Ramirez, director of corporate social responsibility and external relations at Hyundai Motor America. “Our goal is to open the kids’ eyes to STEM careers.”

Hyundai first connected with JEP several years ago through a USC Dornsife alumna who worked at the company — one of a multitude of Hyundai Trojans. JEP students met with Hyundai engineers during the company’s Career Experience Days to learn about pathways to STEM careers.

Students race their model green-energy cars.

Since then, the company’s involvement with JEP has grown to encompass support for the Young Scientists Program. Last year, Hyundai offered YSP students at James A. Foshay Learning Center, a K-12 school near USC’s University Park Campus, a drone workshop in which they explored flight mechanics, analyzed aerial drone photography and piloted remote-controlled drones to gain firsthand experience with their maneuverability.

For the Hyundai Hydrogen STEM Program, Hyundai worked with USC Dornsife staff to add a special touch — bringing a full-size hydrogen-powered car to the event, a first for the company. Hyundai staff were educated the students about where the hydrogen tank was stored and how it fueled the vehicle.

It was also one of the first times Hyundai hosted a STEM workshop on a college campus, bringing students and their parents to USC to instill a sense of belonging in the children at a young age.

“To have the event at USC was phenomenal because USC is one of the top universities in the country,” said Ramirez. “You could see the parents were so happy that they signed up for this program.”

Igniting Curiosity

For many students, YSP is their first opportunity to engage directly with STEM subjects in a hands-on capacity.

Projects like the hydrogen car workshop can spark a passion for science that may not have been possible otherwise — especially for groups not historically represented within scientific fields.

As the hydrogen car workshop concluded, students left with more than just mini cars — they carried home a newfound passion for science. The event exemplified how partnerships between educational initiatives like YSP and industry leaders like Hyundai can create transformative experiences for young scientists.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t know that much about STEM careers,” said Ramirez. “By partnering with JEP, we can highlight some of this exciting work. Maybe someday in the future they’ll be able to see themselves as engineers.”