Children’s book series encourages diversity in STEAM careers

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

Maria Madrigal, an educational programs specialist at USC Sea Grant, has never thought of herself as a creative writer. She studied studio art and ecological teaching and learning in college.

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

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

Dieuwertje Kast presented the 2020 collection to Room to Read, a non-profit organization fighting illiteracy and gender inequality. Kast is the director of STEM education programs for the Joint Educational Project, a Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences organization that provides the university with service-learning opportunities within the community.

“We wanted to have a wide variety of different STEM careers, especially some that the students may not have heard of before,” Kast said of the books in the project.

After pitching the idea to Room to Read, Kast enrolled people from college in the STEAM-Powered Careers collection. University staff and alumni authored eight of the ten books, which featured seven other university scholars. Kast wrote the book on oncology and shared her experiences at the North and South Poles in the book on polar science.

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

She was inspired to pitch the idea at Room to Read after noticing a lack of STEM children’s books with different 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 the characters in children’s books are people of color.

The collection features three characters – Cora, Mia, and Jae – who learn more about each career featured in the collection. The characters are respectively Black, Hispanic and Asian.

“[Kast’s] The ability to elevate the voices of people of color within the sciences is just so much appreciated,” Madrigal said, referring to Kast’s efforts to share the STEAM-Powered Careers collection with the community.

Jasmin Sanchez, a USC graduate with a degree in Health and Human Sciences, wrote the occupational therapy book in the collection. She said the collection empowers students to pursue their dream careers. Characters listen to advice, try new things, and learn from wrongdoing to overcome challenges. Sanchez said she hopes to pursue a career in occupational therapy and participated in occupational therapy research at SoLa Peace Camp as an undergraduate.

“I think it’s very important to raise awareness about this [occupational therapy] not only for students who may want to continue as they age, but also when they need the services that occupational therapy can provide,” Sanchez said.

The STEAM Powered Careers Collection includes digital and printed copies of the books in English and Spanish. The digital version of the collection can be read for free on the Room to Read website. The site also includes hands-on lesson plans and instructional videos for each book.

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

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

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

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

Madrigal said her favorite things about working with the STEAM-Powered Careers Collection are creating the storyline and graphics for the book and meeting with some of the scientists and writers involved in the project.

Sanchez said she hopes the collection gives kids the confidence to pursue the career of their choice.

“I will [students] knowing they can do whatever they want with their lives,” Sanchez said. “They can take any career, any path, and they’re going to be great and they’re going to do great things.”

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