Alumna showing how inquiry-based science can inspire students

D. J. Kast BS ’11, MS ’11, MAT ’14 collaborates with USC Viterbi on after-school workshop

By Dieuwertje “D. J.” Kast

I am the STEM Program’s manager for the USC Joint Educational Project and the director of its Young Scientists Program (YSP), and we recently partnered with the Computer Science department at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.  

As I learned from my days as a USC Rossier MAT student, specifically my EDUC-502 classes, students love to feel like scientists through hands-on activities and experiments. Associate Professor of Clinical Education Fred Freking was an amazing mentor for me and truly demonstrated to me how inquiry-based science can transform a students’ view on STEM fields. I wanted my students to be able to see what life is like from the perspective of a computer scientist. With the help of faculty member Dr. Sheila Tejada of USC Viterbi, I presented an after-school computer science studio workshop to 50 fourth and fifth grade students from Lenicia B. Weemes Elementary School.

A USC Viterbi student shows the fourth and fifth graders how to control Scribbler robots.

A USC Viterbi student shows the fourth and fifth graders how to control Scribbler robots.

We staged four activity stations, which offered a variety of ways to engage in computer science. At the first station, students learned how to code and designed their own holiday cards.  The second station invited students to design computer games using a  Makey Makey (a program board that replaces keyboard keys with the help of a closed circuit utilizing anything conductive). One fifth grade girl observed, “It is cool that you can make a keyboard using different things like bananas and playdough.”

At the third station, computer science graduate students from Viterbi taught the fourth and fifth graders how to control Scribbler robots (capable of drawing, photographing and navigating) by sending instructions wirelessly from a computer.  At the fourth station, students created circuit bracelets using conductive thread, LED lights and felt. This station was created to emulate wearable technology and there were a few real-life examples of that at the workshop. For example, I wore light-up earrings, and two of my science teaching staff wore jellyfish skirts made from LED lights, a battery pack and fiber optics cables.

Guest speaker Claudia Chung Sanii with D. J. Kast.

Guest speaker Claudia Chung Sanii with D. J. Kast(at right).

I also invited a computer animator (or simulation supervisor) from Walt Disney Animation studios, Claudia Chung Sanii, to kick off the event by speaking to students about careers in computer science and how she uses her skills as a computer scientist in her animation work. Chung Sanii oversees the team responsible for building the character effects in films—including fur, which ultimately reflects the motion of real fur; tailored cloth, which moves according real-life physics; and body dynamics, which introduce muscle and fat movement to help sell the weight and size of the characters. Her Disney credits include recent Oscar-winning features “Big Hero 6,” “Frozen” and “Zootopia.”

Another fifth grader expressed her feelings about the studio, stating, “ I wanted to attend this workshop to learn about something new that I never learned about before. I loved hearing the Disney Animator talk about computer science because “Frozen” is my favorite movie. When I grow up, I want to use technology in my job.”

Another fifth-grade girl stated, “I wanted to learn about computer science because I want to know how to make movies when I get older. Robots are just so cool and I loved seeing the red robot and how they work.”

Claire Chatinover, from my science teaching staff, shared what she observed in watching another of the student participants engage in the activities: “He said that he usually doesn’t get told he can do things like computer science. It was really cool for him to not only be told he could do it but also to get a chance to practice it on his own. It gave him confidence to see himself in science later on in life.”

Dieuwertje “DJ” Kast BS ’11, MS ’11, MAT ’14 is the STEM program manager for the USC Joint Educational Project.