in Educator of the Month

Educators of the Month: USC Young Scientists Program & Team

Our mission at Ozobot has always been to help close the gender and ethnicity gap in STEM careers. We are excited to share with you that we have partnered with the Office of Mayor Garcetti through PledgeLA to continue to support this cause. PledgeLA’s mission is to improve equity, diversity, and inclusion in the tech & venture capital communities. 

A couple of months ago, Mayor Garcetti’s office connected us to Dieuwertje (DJ) Kast of the Young Scientists Program/Joint Education Program because they are on a similar mission with a focus on STEM education. 

The Young Scientists Program (YSP) is an inquiry-based, hands-on, STEAM educational outreach program operated by the USC Joint Educational Project. The program aims to address a critical lack of science education in JEP partner schools by recruiting STEAM undergraduate and graduate students to serve as Teaching Assistants (TAs) who, under the direction of the JEP STEM Programs Manager and individual YSP Site Coordinators, bring scientific laboratory experiences directly to students and their teachers.   The YSP science curriculum functions as an effective supplement of current science instruction in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) schools. It incorporates Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), as well as LAUSD and statewide grade-level science learning standards, with the ultimate goal of strengthening science literacy and promoting interest in scientific careers. YSP’s primary objectives are to present accessible and engaging science lessons to the neighborhood children around the university, assist in alleviating the fear and stress that is often associated with studying science, and help students apply what they learn in the classroom to the real world and to their own lives.

We’ve committed to our biggest donation of the year with Ozobot Classroom Kits and Educator Entry Kits to support DJ’s program and we are excited to announce that DJ and her inspiring team as our November Educators of the Month!

Tell us about yourselves! What is your job and what inspired you to get into the career you have?

Dieuwertje Kast

I am the STEM Programs Manager for the University of Southern California’s (USC) Joint Educational Project. Through my efforts, I have provided STEM instruction to over 23,000 underrepresented minority students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, 600 educators, 20 school principals, and countless community members. I coordinate STEM programming for K-5 students across a gamut of schools through the Wonderkids, Medical STEM Program and Young Scientists Programs. 


Tasfia Jahangir (back) teaching her Ozobot lesson to a third grade class

Third Grade TA: Tasfia Jahangir

Tasfia is an undergraduate student who is completing her final year at the University of Southern California. She is studying psychology, Spanish, and public health. She serves as the Young Scientists Program (YSP) Site Coordinator for 32nd Street School, where she teaches science to 3rd graders. Tasfia’s experiences in education have been formative for her goals of pursuing a research career at the intersections of mental health equity, and dissemination in educational settings.

Rita Barakat helping fourth grade students with Ozobots

Fourth Grade TA: Rita Barakat

Rita Barakat is a fourth-year Neuroscience Ph.D. Candidate and an NSF Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Southern California. Her research focuses on comparing the behavioral and structural and functional brain differences between typical reading children and children with dyslexia using functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Rita currently serves as the Young Scientists Program (YSP) Site Coordinator for Mack Elementary School, and also teaches fourth grade at 32nd Street Elementary School through YSP. She has had the pleasure and honor of working with LAUSD educators and administrators, as well as USC Joint Educational Project staff since the Fall of 2017.

Paige Havens holding up her Ozobot Evo

Fifth Grade TA: Paige Havens

Paige is a Senior undergraduate at the University of Southern California. She is finishing her Bachelors of Science degree in Human Biology with an emphasis in Health and Disease. Paige also has a Psychology minor. She is a 5th grade science TA with JEP YSP, and has been teaching at John Mack Elementary for the last year and a half. Working with JEP and the LAUSD educators has opened her mind to the education field and has taught her numerous transferable interpersonal and communication skills. Paige strives to become a Registered Dietician Nutritionist for children in the future, however JEP has led her down a path of researching Education and Equity in the meantime!

How did you think of creating these lessons?

DJ Kast: When we first received news that Ozobot would be donating 121 Ozobots to our program, we started brainstorming how we could incorporate it into our STEM program logistically. While we were brainstorming, we were invited as a supporting partner to a STEM Discovery day at USC’s Health Science Campus. Together with one of my site coordinators Kruthi Annigeri created activities with the Ozobots for about 200 middle school and high school students. 

Afterwards, three of my staff volunteered to create and test the curriculum for three grade levels including third, fourth, and fifth grade classrooms. 

Rita Barakat: “Because I am a neuroscientist by training, I chose to tailor my Ozobots lesson for fourth grade students to focus on the way in which the Evo robot senses different wavelengths of light and responds in a coordinated and deliberate (programmed) manner, much like how humans learn to respond to specific wavelengths of light in their environment. The example I plan to start with is the concept of a crosswalk, and how students learn that a green or white walking symbol in a crosswalk signifies ‘go’, while a red flashing hand symbol signifies ‘no go’. We, as humans, learn these visually-coordinated behaviors organically, while robots like the Evo Ozobot are programmed to understand specific light ‘commands’.

Tasfia Jahangir: “I am using Ozobots to give my third grade students an introduction to coding, and having them apply these ideas to navigate their Ozobots through the different steps in the ‘pathway’ of a butterfly life cycle. Their applicability to a lesson in programming as well as biology really shows you how versatile of a learning tool Ozobots are!” 

Paige Havens: “When coming up with an Ozobot lesson, and because my students are fifth graders, I was trying to think of a practical, real- world application to bring to these robots and to the idea of coding. With the constant climate strikes and discussions concerning the environment, I knew I wanted my Ozobot lesson to be in the environmental science field. The last lesson of the fifth Grade Fall semester curriculum is about the topic of Acid Rain. Progressing from there, my Ozobot lesson will delve deeper into the idea of pollution and everyday caution we should be taking, thinking critically about the effects on our oceans and marine life. The intent of my lesson is to combine creativity, coding, and consciousness!!”

What was the most challenging part about making them, and how did you overcome the obstacles?

Barakat: Introducing K-5 students to the fundamentals of computer programming requires a fair amount of scaffolding leading up to the actual “exploration” portion of a lesson, so for my fourth grade Ozobots-centric lesson, one of the greatest challenges was finding a way to use the Evo Ozobots to encourage students to engage with a concept (visual perception) that is inherently familiar to them in a way that they may not have engaged with it before. 

Specifically, I wanted my students to be able to draw comparisons between the ways in which we as humans see things in our environment and respond to them, and the ways in which the Evo Ozobot performs a similar behavior. In this way, the lesson did not require the same degree of scaffolding that a more explicitly robotics/ computer engineering lesson may have for students to appreciate the hands-on activity, and relied more on students’ prior knowledge and personal experience with visual perception in their own lives. 

Jahangir: My students do not have a background in coding, so the most challenging part was figuring out how to transition from a session of introductory coding to a more, hands-on “real world” application of their learning. I wanted to bring in something that would be familiar to my students while still being relevant to the Next Generation Science Standards.  The goal through this is to primarily ensure that students are absorbing and learning as much as possible without me overwhelming them with information. I found that the butterfly life cycle be a great segway into the theme we start teaching next semester with (since this is the last lesson of the semester), while still relating to the lessons they are still familiar with beyond the science I teach in the classroom.

Havens:  I was unsure whether or not my students had any background or prior introduction to coding or robotics of any kind. It was difficult to think of a lesson that could encompass the basics of coding as well as something relevant in our ongoing 5th grade curriculum. This task seemed too intricate to come to fruition. My initial thinking was ‘Robots, that’s so cool, my 5th graders will love it!’ but as I thought more about it the concern revolved around doubts that my students would not be able to control themselves or that I wouldn’t think of something challenging enough to keep them engaged. I strived to find the perfect medium of a lesson that wasn’t all new concepts and could provide time for an introductory period at the beginning. 

How did you first hear about Ozobot and/or first start learning to code?

Kast: In the Fall of 2018, Mayor Garcetti launched Women in STEM Los Angeles or (WiSTEM LA), with the goal of supporting and encouraging young women to get into and persist through STEM fields.  As part of their efforts, WiSTEM is the sponsor of the three YSP volunteers working closely with Ozobot. Additionally, the Mayor’s Office made the connection between Ozobot and YSP earlier this year, with the hope that the WiSTEM volunteers would have access to the best tools and curriculum to deliver their programming to youth. Ozobot representatives visited YSP staff meeting on October 1st, 2019 to demonstrate to YSP staff how the Ozobots would work. They also came to observe fourth grade TA Rita Barakat in action with her bots on November 13th, 2019. 

Have you named your Ozobot? 

Kast: Thanks to the kind generosity of Ozobots we were donated 57 Ozobots to use for our STEM program and we have not named them all… yet. 

A few names from the students are: 

Wall-E, Boss Lady, Seeker, Toyota, Steve, Butterfly Bot, Flame Dragon Cheetah, Snowy, Blue Cheese, and more!

How else do you use STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) in everyday life?

Kast: I wear science dresses to work almost everyday. When we did the large outreach day, I had the students code pacman and I wore my pacman dress.

Barakat: Given that I’m immersed in a research-centric field (I am now a Ph.D. Candidate in Neuroscience), I use all aspects of STEAM both directly and indirectly through my work. To me, the “S” (Science) is all encompassing of the other aspects of STEAM (technology, engineering, art and math), and I rely quite heavily on the 21st century developments in technology, engineering and mathematics to analyze data related to brain activity during periods when children are reading and during rest periods where they allow their minds to wander. I believe that there is an art to the way in which science is communicated, and I rely on the performance aspect of teaching science to my fourth grade students, as well as the K-12 and undergraduate and graduate students that I work with.

Jahangir: I primarily use STEAM to pursue knowledge as a college student. Additionally, besides being a science educator, I am also a research assistant at my university. As a student and aspiring social science researcher, I try to incorporate the scientific method in my day-to-day functions to help me inquire about and understand the various issues of life in a larger manner. There is a lot we can learn from the scientific method, particularly its self-correcting mechanism. Hence, I also use this approach as a tool for building my own knowledge and facilitating my learning as a college student– both within the lecture halls, and also beyond. Additionally, because I am interested in applied research, I perceive the scientific method as an essential step towards advocacy, dissemination, and public awareness in every research project that I pursue. 

Havens: I use STEAM everyday as an undergraduate Bachelors of Science student. From classes to my position as a research assistant to holding the role of a science educator, STEAM is constantly a part of my daily routine. Aside from the textbook definition and logistical details of the STEAM field, the concepts and ideas can be incorporated into daily decision making and problem solving revolving around all aspects of life. The technology aspect is also accounted for through iphones, tablets, smart watches, tablets, and more that are observed in everyday life.

This inspiring team of women educators are making a huge difference in the community. Check out what else they are up to on the USC website or on their Facebook page!