Full STEAM Ahead: Inspiring Youth Through New Book Series

ByMedia Contact: Leah Shore / lshore@usc.edu / (213)-740-1960

Often, when someone is asked about what drove their career path, the answer includes the influence of an outside perspective. Whether a person, a book, an experience, or an event, people are driven to pursue paths with which they can relate or connect. USC Sea Grant’s education program is well-recognized for connecting ocean sciences to youth throughout Los Angeles, especially focusing on underserved and underrepresented communities. Our program recently partnered to connect youth to ocean careers by creating a children’s book on marine biology.

As part of a larger two-year STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) collaborative project led by USC’s Joint Educational Project (JEP) and created in collaboration with the global education organization and nonprofit publisher Room to Read, USC Sea Grant’s book was one of a ten-part series that aimed to educate relatable science career paths to Los Angeles’s diverse communities (targeting students in kindergarten through 5th-grade) through STEAM topics including Marine Biology, Oncology, Engineering, and Polar Science.

Maria Madrigal posing next to a table displaying the Marine Biology book she wrote.

Dieuwertje “DJ” Kast, director of the STEM education programs at JEP, recalls that one of the motivating factors for this series is that there is a lack of children’s books that focus on or represent people of color. Although Marine Biology may be a well-covered topic, there needs to be more diversity represented. Drawing upon her long-standing relationship with USC Sea Grant’s education programs, she handpicked USC Sea Grant’s Education Specialist, Maria Madrigal, as the marine biology book author, recognizing her specialty in marine science education, and highlighting her Hispanic heritage. Further, as each book features a scientist, DJ paired Maria with Charnelle Wickliff, a former Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies graduate fellow and marine biologist specializing in drones. Pairing these experts was a unique way to show that while it’s common to think of marine biology as an ocean-based job, there are many potential connections to this field that don’t involve getting in the water. This point is especially important to share with students as there are access issues for swimming in the region.

As a strong supporter of mentorship and as a first-time author, Maria was thrilled to share the world of marine science with students who can relate to her. When describing what motivated her writing, she shared, “If you see someone that looks like you, speaks like you, and has a similar background, then you are more likely to see yourself in that position.” With over 20 years of teaching experience in marine science and a passion for equity and inclusion, this book was an opportunity to provide connections in a way she never expected.

Maria’s book, STEAM Powered Series: Marine Biology, follows Cora and her friend, Bonnie the butterfly, as they discover the different ways scientists study what is underwater. When explaining how she approached this theme, she prioritized topics that are accessible and local to Los Angeles students and highlighted themes common to USC Sea Grant’s work. For example, Cora and Bonnie explore kelp forests, plankton and harmful algal blooms, grunion fish, and tidepool monitoring, all of which are common teaching and research topics for USC Sea Grant. Further, they venture out to free and accessible areas that children can enjoy, such as docks, the beach, and aquariums.

“Aquariums can be a great introduction to marine biology for children,” states Maria. Although some public education resources can be a cost barrier, there are a variety of free resources that students can visit and enjoy across the region, such as the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium and the California Science Center. She is hopeful that her book and engaging with students can increase awareness of the free resources that are accessible and close to home for many children in the area.

Another aspect in which the books aim to reach children is through the illustrations. For instance, various hand-drawn illustrations and colorful photographs of thriving underwater life were provided to create an engaging and enticing path of ocean adventures. One photography source came from the late photographer, marine educator, and scientist Dr. Chuck Kopzack. He was not only a collaborator of USC Sea Grant but a mentor and inspiration to Maria. His legacy is represented in the book through his beautiful kelp forest photos, captured through his expert diving and underwater photography ventures, all of which he was delighted to provide.

Examples within the book of traveling to aquariums (left) and showcasing Dr. Kopzack's captivating kelp forest photos (right).
Examples within the book of traveling to aquariums (left) and showcasing Dr. Kopzack’s captivating kelp forest photos (right).

The collaboration with Dr. Kopzack is just one example of how USC Sea Grant partnered with many others, both outside and within USC, in creating this book and the broader book series. University-wide collaborations such as USC JEP, USC Dornsife (which houses USC Sea Grant), USC Keck School of Medicine, USC Viterbi School of Engineering, and others, represent the star lineup of diverse authors, educators, and scientists highlighted in the book series. Additionally, the collaboration with Room to Read included partnering with seven local schools to help distribute the books through hosted “book assemblies.”

During the initial kickoff event for the STEAM book series on October 6, Maria emphasized that “it was really cool to be at the assembly with the majority of authors present and to see the diversity of the people.” She applauded DJ’s planning in showing the diversity of ethnicities and career levels, such as including scientists who are graduate students and early career professionals, to be more accessible to students. In addition to the kickoff assembly, Maria had her own unique assembly on October 13 at John Mack Elementary School to read and distribute her book, and to engage with students in both English and Spanish.

Maria reading her book (left), and engaging with students (right), during the assembly at John Mack Elementary School.
Maria reading her book (left), and engaging with students (right), during the assembly at John Mack Elementary School.

“Students read along with the book and were extremely excited to take their tote bag of books home,” said USC Sea Grant’s Education Programs Manager, Linda Chilton. She shares that “teachers were delighted to bring their class and have them hear from an author firsthand; and to see scientists, authors, and characters in books who reflect their students.”

There was a plethora of positive feedback from teachers and students at the event. First-grade teacher Ms. Leticia Duggan shared, “For students to see and do science is important. We need to see ourselves in stories. We looked together and saw her [Maria’s] picture in the book. That was great!” Further, Ms. Stephanie Ramirez, a 4th-grade teacher, shared, “The most important part of this is the awareness we are providing to Los Angeles Unified School District students. USC is here in the community, right next door. STEM is so important for their future and to go further.”

In addition to teacher comments, it was apparent across students the impact these assemblies and books had on their perception of STEM careers. From the spontaneous rush asking Maria to sign their books, to connecting with the characters and readers, to enjoying the hands-on activities related to the book, to being overjoyed with the tote of books they were able to take home and read with their parents, these responses are just a few of many that show representation matters.

The complete STEAM-Powered Careers Book Collection is available online. Currently, in addition to the 40,000 books (offered in both English and Spanish) distributed throughout the seven assemblies, USC Sea Grant will receive 3,000 more books to share with our partners and the broader education community. Further, each book consists of a lesson plan developed by each author for use in classroom settings. Both the book and lesson plan are offered in English and Spanish versions to broadly reach the diverse students in our communities.

Emphasizing USC Sea Grant’s focus on increasing inclusion in education, there is no effort too small to impact a student’s perspective. Something as simple as speaking their language, wearing clothing more relatable to their culture, providing multiple language options, or connecting with students through characters of a book, can shape a student’s perception of accessible topics and careers. It was an honor for our program to participate in the STEAM-Powered Careers Book Series collaboration, and we look forward to continuing to connect with and inspire the career paths of bright and curious students across our diverse and vibrant communities.