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Rossier Grad Innovates in STEM with Underwater Robotics Lesson

DJ Kast recently graduated from the Rossier Master of Arts in Teaching program with a science credential. Last year, DJ wrote a blog post about her three science and teaching-related jobs (director of education for the USC Young Scientist Program, USC NAI High School science education coordinator and Wonderkids STEM program manager). We caught up with DJ to see how things have been going and learn more about what she does to encourage STEM and inspire students!

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What stood out during your USC Rossier education that has helped you in your jobs?
All my science pedagogy classes helped increase the amount of inquiry and engagement present throughout my lessons and activities through my programs.

Can you explain your job and what your day-to-day routine looks like?
I manage a staff of 10 people at the moment, spread across fourth and fifth grade in 5 different schools. Every day, I write lesson plans that will work in the classrooms, I buy supplies for the program, and I go and make observations within the classrooms of my TA’s. I check in with my TA’s and teachers at the various schools on a regular basis to make sure everyone feels supported.

Can you explain what YSP does?
The Young Scientist Program works in partnership with five USC community schools to engage more than 1,400 elementary school students, 45 LAUSD teachers and 5 principals through a broad repertoire of science curriculum.

YSP teaching assistants are placed at each school presenting hands-on science labs to fourth and fifth grade classrooms. YSP brings scientific lab experiences directly to students and their teachers with the goal of supplementing current science instruction, complementing LAUSD and state grade level science learning standards, strengthening science literacy and promoting interest in scientific careers.

One of YSP’s primary objectives is to increase science activities for a larger number of our neighborhood children as a means to encourage them to consider careers in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields and to apply what they are learning in the classroom to the real world. Additional outcomes are that our USC undergraduate students learn how to become successful mentors, gain valuable teaching experience and learn how to directly respond to the needs of the schools, communities and families.



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Where do you find teacher’s assistants for YSP?
We find them everywhere. Some TAs are undergraduates in a science field at USC, and others are Rossier Science Education graduates or students. We hire the best person we think will do well in our classrooms. I’ve hired two Rossier students for this spring semester for YSP. The quality of their work during the MAT@USC program inspired me to hire them for the Young Scientist Program.

What does a teacher’s assistant do?
A teacher’s assistant for the Young Scientist Program is assigned to work in a fourth or fifth grade class and has a handful of LAUSD teachers in that grade for which they provide hands-on inquiry-based science lessons to supplement the science within their classrooms.

The TAs pick up the bags from the JEP office with their supplies, prep the labs and other activities, and go out to the classrooms and teach a fun hands-on lesson plan that runs concurrently with what the teacher is teaching in class. The program is complementary to the LAUSD science curriculum to further prepare students for careers in science, and to improve their standardized testing skills in science.

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Can you tell us more about your session with the Underwater Robotics Studio and examples of other programs YSP provides?
YSP introduced studio projects in 2010. These studios are site-based projects through which the YSP responds directly to the needs of the students and the school community. YSP develops three-hour studio science project that is presented after school hours.

Fourth and fifth graders are presented with YSP science labs in their classrooms during the regular school day. Then students gather after school to receive a university-style lecture and participate in a range of activities that reinforce the concepts taught in the lecture — much like what USC students do in their science classes and labs. YSP Studio projects also allow opportunities for students to inquire and learn about careers in science as studio projects bring in university professionals from the STEM fields.

They have done Energy and Sustainability studios before but I wanted to do something unique with my love for ocean science and the school’s love for robotics, and consequently we came up with underwater robots. The goal was to introduce the idea of underwater robotics in a hands-on and engaging way and allow the students to explore a new STEM field and see possible careers in science. It was a way of showing how fun concepts like engineering can be and how learning can have real-life applications.

YSP-Underwater Studio-44smallWe hosted it for the fourth and fifth graders at Foshay because they are the ones currently participating in the YSP at this school. I would like students to leave the workshop with a little more knowledge about pressure, volume, buoyancy, etc. — all of which are concepts that make an underwater robot work. We partnered with a fellow Rossier alumna Wendy Marshall, EdD ’12 from ExplorOcean and their program supplies a lot of the materials necessary for the eight science stations at this studio.

Students who participated in the underwater robotics workshop learned how to build, drive and use underwater robotics. Remote Operated Vehicles or ROVs were on site and the students were able to control them in a pool and use them to collect scientific data and play underwater games. They learned the science behind what it takes to get a robot to work underwater; they learned concepts like neutral buoyancy, pressure and volume. They also made water-fueled rockets and were even able to bring home their own glow-in-the-dark Cartesian diver squid and a YSP T-shirt.

How do students/schools get involved with YSP? Which schools do you work with?
At the beginning of the year, I ask the teachers currently teaching in the fourth and fifth grades at the USC Family of Schools — many from the original five — if they would be interested in continuing with the YSP program for this year. The following schools are currently actively involved with the YSP program: Foshay Learning Center, Weemes Elementary, 32nd St School, Norwood Elementary and Vermont Elementary.

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How are you teaching STEM in your classrooms? Share your innovative lessons in the comments below!