Dieuwertje Kast remembers a day in a second grade class she worked as part of the Joint Educational Project where the students experienced the wonders of virtual reality for the first time. With a headset almost slipping off of his face, one student stared in awe at the safari animals that seemed to be standing before him and waved to each one as they passed by.
Now, AnitaB.org will recognize Kast as a recipient of the Social Impact Abie Award for her work in coordinating this experience by implementing technology, including 3D printing, raspberry pi devices and carbon dioxide sensors into the curricula of more than 29,000 local K-12 students. The global nonprofit, which will honor Kast during its Grace Hopper Celebration Sept. 27 to Oct. 1, recognizes five women annually who have used technology to create social change.
To Kast, these technological devices are “a large part of the tech future” that many students in low-income communities never get the chance to experience in elementary school.
“We want students to be able to see some of this stuff so it’s not foreign to them as they continue to go through their own educational experience,” Kast said.
As the director of STEM Education Programs at the USC JEP program Kast coordinates science and technology programming for low-income schools. JEP, a service-learning program based in the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, places undergraduate students in schools, hospitals and nonprofits where they bring the topics they study in class into these spaces.
Inspired by her father, who is also a scientist, Kast majored in biological sciences as an undergraduate at USC when she began her work with JEP. Since her time as an undergraduate, Kast has worked with JEP for 11 years.
“Doing JEP myself when I was an undergrad really opened my eyes to what different people were going through,” Kast said. “I found that I liked the science education much more than I liked the science piece, and I wanted to continue to make a difference.”
Darin Gray, director of the Viterbi K-12 STEM Center, recalls a project Kast initiated in which she asked elementary school students to illustrate their vision of a scientist. The JEP team observed how the drawings changed over time and, by the end of the program, the students began to draw scientists that looked like them, rather than “the prototypical white male older gentleman with the crazy hair,” Gray said.
“When she shared that with me, it was just a fundamental shift in how we were doing STEM,” Gray said. “I thought about diversity, equity and inclusion, but I never really thought about how kids see scientists. They don’t see themselves.”
Gray met Kast when she first started working at USC. Since then, they have become close enough to have dinners with each other’s families. Gray even bought a multitude of science-themed ties, inspired by Kast’s affinity for science-themed clothing.
“[Kast is] a great human being, and she really does care,” Gray said. “It shows in the work that she does, and in the way she carries herself and her willingness to even learn and connect with people.”
Kast continually emphasizes the importance of students learning directly from scientists. When one of the elementary schools she works with had a space unit, Kast made it a priority to bring in a number of astronauts of color, including Sian Proctor, the first Black female pilot of a spacecraft. Kast also brought in an astronaut who incorporated art into her career when another student expressed a passion for science and drawing.
“It blew [the student’s] mind, just realizing that there are so many different possibilities, that you can combine your love of science and art, and make that a career,” Kast said.
Susan Harris, executive director of JEP, remembers when Kast connected students at Vermont Elementary School with astronauts on the International Space Station in real-time by attaching a satellite to the school’s roof building. The event required an abundance of coordination: Kast had to call all of the students together at a very specific time while simultaneously livestreaming the event to every other school she had partnered with.
“It was just such an exciting thing to see the students respond when they first made contact with the astronauts and being able to ask questions directly,” Harris said. “[It is] characteristic of the kinds of amazing things that [Kast] can pull off effectively.”
Looking forward, Kast wants to expand into education beyond just creating lesson plans and hosting workshops. Specifically, she wishes to train elementary school teachers in STEM education so they can pass it down to their students.
“Research has shown that teachers that are uncomfortable with science and technology don’t use it in their classrooms,” Kast said. “Especially in kindergarten through third grade, some teachers just skip it and then the kids don’t get a basic introduction to science until they’re in fourth grade. Then it’s already too late.”
Kast is the recipient of numerous other science education awards, including both the Forbes 30 Under 30 in Science Award and the North American Association Environmental Education “EE 30 under 30 Award” in 2016. When Harris heard Kast won the Social Impact Abie Award, she “wasn’t all that surprised.”
“I mean, her work is incredible,” Harris said. “She’s sought after and recognized frequently for her work so this was another feather in her cap. I’m just incredibly proud of her.”
Kast will be recognized at AnitaB.org’s virtual celebration, which began Monday and will run until Friday.