Children’s book series promotes diversity in STEAM careers

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The USC authors presented their book STEAM Oncology at the first book assembly at the 32nd Street School. The book captured diverse voices in STEAM, while serving as an educational and professional resource for students. (Photo courtesy of Joint Educational Project)

Maria Madrigal, education program specialist at USC Sea Grant, never considered herself a creative writer. She majored in studio arts and ecological teaching and learning in middle school.

“I can write for work and things like that, but I’m not a creative writer, I guess I should say,” Madrigal said. “I never imagined [writing] a children’s book.

Madrigal wrote a book on marine biology for Room to Read’s STEAM-Powered Careers collection. The collection includes 10 children’s books on various professions – including oncology, data science and nanotechnology – written by professionals in the field with the aim of increasing resources for children to learn about the careers in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.

Dieuwertje Kast presented the collection to Room to Read, a nonprofit organization that seeks to address illiteracy and gender inequality, in 2020. Kast is the Director of STEM Education Programs for the Joint Educational Project, an organization under Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. which provides the University with opportunities for service-learning within the community.

“We wanted to have a wide variety of different STEM careers, especially some that students might never have heard of before,” Kast said of the project’s books.

After pitching the idea to Room to Read, Kast incorporated people from the university into the STEAM-Powered Careers collection. University staff and alumni authored eight of the 10 books, which featured seven other university scientists. Kast wrote the oncology book and shared his experiences at the North Pole and South Pole in the Polar Science book.

The Rooms to Read team funded the STEAM-Powered Careers collection and provided 90,000 books to schools in Los Angeles. They distribute books in English and Spanish. (Photo courtesy of Joint Educational Project)

She was inspired to pitch the idea to Room to Read after noticing a lack of STEM children’s books with diverse characters. A 2018 study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Madison—Wisconsin School of Education found that only 23% of characters in children’s books are people of color.

The collection features three characters – Cora, Mia and Jae – who experience each career featured in the collection. The characters are respectively black, Latin and Asian.

“[Kast’s] the ability to elevate the voices of people of color within science is truly highly valued,” Madrigal said, referencing Kast’s efforts to share the STEAM-Powered Careers collection with the community.

Jasmin Sanchez, a USC alumnus who majored in health sciences and humanities, wrote the collection’s occupational therapy book. She said the collection allows students to pursue the career of their dreams. Characters listen to advice, try new things, and learn misdeeds to overcome challenges. Sanchez said she hoped to pursue a career in occupational therapy and participated in occupational therapy research at SoLa Peace Camp when she was a student.

“I think it is very important to raise awareness [occupational therapy] not only for students who may want to pursue it as they get older, but also if they need the services that occupational therapy can provide,” Sanchez said.

The STEAM-Powered Careers collection includes digital and print copies of the books in English and Spanish. The digital version of the collection is available for free reading on the Room to Read site. The website also includes practical lesson plans and educational videos for each book.

“You can definitely see a child light up when you speak bilingual or [when] you explain something to them in Spanish that they have trouble understanding in English,” Sanchez said.

Room to Read funded the STEAM-Powered Careers collection and provided 90,000 books to schools and community education programs.

Kast also organizes book assemblies in elementary schools to share the stories with students, which the authors of the collection attend to read to the community. After the book assemblies, students can take an English or Spanish copy of the book home.

“It was really great to see [the books] in the hands of the kids, because they’re excited,” Madrigal said.

Madrigal said her favorite parts of working with the STEAM-Powered Careers Collection were creating the storyline and visuals for the book and meeting some of the scientists and authors involved in the project.

Sanchez said she hopes the collection will give children confidence in pursuing the career of their choice.

“I want [students] to know that they can do whatever they want with their lives,” Sanchez said. “They can pursue any career, any path, and they’re going to be amazing and they’re going to do a great job.”

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