Trojan trailblazer draws inspiration from role models to encourage the next generation of STEM students
TITLE IX: “The concepts that Title IX embodies are really central to our STEM programs at the USC Joint Educational Project,” says Dieuwertje “DJ” Kast of the USC Joint Educational Project.
Role models like Sylvia Earle inspired USC Joint Educational Project’s Director of STEM Education Dieuwertje “DJ” Kast to pursue a career in the STEM fields from a very young age. Considering the bumps in the road she had to face along the way, Kast now tries to include Title IX principles in many aspects of her work, whether that is by designing her STEM programs to directly benefit children and educators of underrepresented communities, intentionally hiring diverse student workers or including and elevating fellow scientists and educators of all genders in her numerous award-winning projects and publications.
“I feel very lucky that I have never had to formally utilize Title IX laws, but I have certainly benefited from them many times,” Kast said. “Knowing that my job is protected, for example, especially recently during and after my two pregnancies, was a big relief.”
Even with those measures in place, she remembers that her early career as a young woman in STEM was not without obstacles. Wanting to pursue a progressive degree in marine biology even before she started her undergraduate program, she started to feel more limited in her career options the closer she got to her goal.
“During my first graduate degree, I noticed just how much the STEM fields were dominated by a demographic that I could not relate to,” Kast said. “Beyond that, despite Title IX being in place already, I saw the women being given fewer opportunities to thrive in their area of expertise. That definitely impacted my hopes of becoming a marine biologist and made me reconsider that dream.”
Through resilience and perseverance, Kast eventually found a creative way to continue her path, while still pivoting toward a new passion: STEM education. Soon she realized that this new avenue might be a great vessel to leverage her work to even the playing field for others who might come after her. She reconnected with a community that she had already encountered earlier in her life — a community of women supporting women.
Title IX trailblazer builds communities of support
“I remember running into Lynn Whitley when I was walking along the involvement fair on Trousdale,” Kast said. “I had originally met her during my high school years when I attended a marine biology camp at the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies on Catalina Island that was incredibly impactful to me. I was very flattered when she offered me a job right on the spot that day, and I am so glad that I can still call her my mentor and friend today.”
Many of the connections Kast made in that community of STEM educators also have had guest appearances in her JEP programming. Knowing the extra hoops that individuals from underrepresented communities face, these educators gladly make time in their schedules to encourage the many K-fifth grade students who participate in the STEM education programs.
“Dr. Sian Proctor, the first Black woman to serve as a pilot of a spacecraft, who I met through NOAA Teacher at Sea and PolarTREC, for example, was so kind to speak to our K-fifth graders about her journey,” Kast said. “I could really see how it sparked such a genuine excitement and curiosity in them to realize that they could also be astronauts one day.”
Another project that Kast has released recently is a book series she created with the help of nonprofit publisher Room to Read. “Careers in STEAM” aims to narrow the representation gap in children’s literature about STEM subjects.
“The concepts that Title IX embodies are really central to our STEM programs at the USC Joint Educational Project, so with a lot of our curriculum we try to utilize literature that represents the children we work with,” Kast said. “Sadly, there are very few characters of color — let alone women or girls of color — in children’s science literature.”
Through the strong network that Kast has created over the years, she had no trouble identifying different educators and scientists who would become authors and contributors to the series. While many were her role models or peers at USC, she also made sure to include some of her mentees.
Title IX trailblazer uplifts and finds inspiration in future trailblazers
“When I pivoted from marine biology to education, I met so many women who supported me right from the start. They offered resources, opportunities, advice or just a phone call to vent sometimes. … And that’s what I try to do for the aspiring scientists and educators I work with today, as well.”
Indeed, Kast makes sure to keep in touch with and uplift alumni of the projects and programs she engages with and works on. One of those programs is USC’s Leslie and William McMorrow Neighborhood Academic Initiative, which Kast has coordinated and taught STEM classes for. Those incoming Trojans frequently find themselves with a guaranteed student-worker position in one of Kast’s programs and gladly accept the opportunity to give back to their community.
“I often learn a lot from them myself. One of my former NAI students who currently works for JEP was an integral part of our efforts to make our programs more gender inclusive. I believe it was during their sophomore year that they came out to us as nonbinary and worked with us to ensure that our curricula and processes are equitable and accessible to other nonbinary students,” Kast said.
“Their courage helped us see the many ways in which we all still can and should step up to make sure that folks of all genders feel represented, seen and validated.”
Inclusivity of all genders is also an area that Kast hopes to see highlighted in future conversations around Title IX.
“I am so lucky that Title IX was established and incredibly grateful for the work of the many women that have come before me. At the same time, I know that there’s still a long way to go. And I want to make sure that I play an active part in working toward this crucial step of equality for all.”
More stories about: Diversity Equity and Inclusion, Joint Educational Project, Title IX