Darin Gray, Ed.d.
Co-Director, K-12 STEM
University of Southern California
Viterbi School of Engineering
He went into biomedical engineering to work on machines to help people's health, then shifted gears into teaching in response to community need
I fell in love with engineering, but I never lost my love for medicine. So when I was looking at colleges I was looking at biomedical engineering programs. I could be an engineer and I could be premed and I wasn’t going to have to make a decision when I was a senior in high school whether I was going to go into medicine or engineering. I could put off that decision until I was a senior in college, I could make the decision to go to medical school or to stay in engineering. I ended up staying in engineering for quite some time before I combined engineering with education.
I didn’t fit in, in Michigan, I was an outcast, because I had this “I’m the greatest” attitude. That was what drew me to USC. At USC everyone had that attitude, and I was like, “My people!” It was the first time that I actually felt confidence in my ability to figure stuff out. I mean I didn’t have all the answers but I knew that there was an answer and I knew that I could get to that answer and so I didn't have to know it all. I just needed to know how to achieve it all.
Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program
One of Darin’s sister’s friends participated in the Detroit Area Pre-College Pre-Engineering Program, and recommended he get into it, too. There he learned more about engineering as a field, took his first computer science class, and fell in love with his first career.
Great news: this program is big, active, and available to today's kids.
Not in the Detroit area? Google pre-college engineering programs. Many universities offer them to middle school and high school students in the summer. Here’s a list: https://www.koppelmangroup.com/blog/2016/12/5/the-20-best-summer-engineering-programs
Years later, when I was interviewing for a job as an engineer, the interviewer asked me a technical question and I had no idea, but as I was talking to him I saw some of the book on his shelf. I said, “Well, give me that book and I can give you the answer.” I thought it was my worst interview ever, but that person offered me a job because of the fact that apparently no one ever knows the answer to that question and people try to punt. I’m like, i have no idea but I know that answer’s in that book, so the confidence wasn’t from knowing everything or being super smart, I just knew I had the capability figure things out.
I stood on the shoulders of giants and I got to where I am because a lot of people sacrificed their lives, their livelihood, their freedom, so I had an obligation to do the same for the next group. Yes. I look at, I stood on the shoulders of giants and I got to where I am because a lot of people sacrificed their lives, their livelihood, their freedom, so I had an obligation to do the same for the next group. What can I do to help the next generation coming up behind me. And often times when I share with some of my supervisors the things that have happened, they say why don’t you say anything, why aren’t you really angry. I look at in context. They’re not shooting at me, they’re not water hosing me, they’re not sticking dogs on me. If the worst thing they’re doing is insulting me or talking about me or trying to impede my progress, that’s progress for me.
Being an engineer was a 10, being a teacher was an 11. I still do some stuff, for years I still had my old consulting company where I would do projects for people, and now I still get to play, if you look behind me you’ll see some of the toys that I still get to play with. I still get to do all sorts of cool stuff, and I get to work with some amazing students here at USC, they go out into the community, very similar to what DJ does, oftentimes I tell them before you can go out and talk to the kids you need to play with the stuff, you need to have fun with it, then you can go talk to the kids.
After the Great Recession, when kids saw that the American Dream was a farce and it could all get taken away from you, I couldn’t get kids to even care. So I had to go back to school to get my masters in teaching because I had to figure out, how do you motivate people who have no faith in the system.
That instead of saying this will one day lead you to a better job and a better life, since they no longer believe that, how do I get them to still engage with this subject. So what I started doing was making things about cultural relevance, things that are important to you. It was no longer about learn these things so you can get a better job, it was learn these things bec it can impact your life, your family, your community, your world.
And that was a different motivation because it’s perpetual — they’re not going to stop caring about their family, they’re not going to stop caring about their community, they’re not going to stop caring about climate change, they’re not going to stop caring about drinking water and air. I had to shift from the economic model that kids of color had gone to school on, go to school to escape your economic situation. I had to shift from the economic model to the make the world a better place model.
Surprisingly, more kids bought into that than the other model.
Read Darin's article about why representation in STEM matters.