Dieuwertje "DJ" Kast
Director, STEM Education Program
Joint Education Project
University of Southern California
A full-time educator and a full-time mom, DJ models herself after Ms. Frizzle to inspire today's kids.
Scaring her advisor
FORK IN THE ROAD
As a White Woman...
Scaring her Advisor
DJ wanted to do marine biology, but USC did not offer an undergraduate marine biology program. "USC has a progressive masters program and I knew as a freshman that I wanted to do that program, and to do the semester USC offers at Catalina Island, where it has its own campus. I kind of scared the graduate advisor of that program because I wanted to do marine biology.
"I was originally a biology major, and I had added a minor in nonprofits, philanthropy, and volunteerism. I started the progressive masters in my junior year in marine environmental biology, and then I only had to add a summer. Most people apply their junior year, do both classes for their bachelor and masters their senior year, and then add a year for just the masters, but I was obnoxious and had junior status in sophomore ]year] so I applied a year earlier and was able to do both of them within 4 1/2 years.
"So to make that happened I had learned what USC had available during that time and sort of worked the system to make that happen for myself. I was also able to find out who was in charge of some of those things and say, I need to know you, please help me."
As a white woman DJ didn’t see herself well-represented in the faculty. “Out of the 35 faculty in that department, at the time they had only 5 female faculty. They were all white. Only one of them had tenure (a permanent post); all the rest were either research or adjunct faculty (temporary).” So they would be first on the chopping block when budgets got tight. “And there was one — ONE — lone faculty member of color.” She was worried that since so few women were getting tenure that science research here wasn’t going to be a very sustainable career track. It was at that time that she began to feel more comfortable — and that she could make more of a contribution — in education.
Growing up with her feet always in the water, DJ says, is a big part of the reason she wanted to go into marine biology. Dutch kids —whose home is below sea level — grow up swimming, and DJ’s family participated in all kinds of water sports. But when she began teaching as an undergraduate in the Young Scientists Program she now leads, it was an eye-opening experience. “Swimming is a major access issue, which, having, being from the Netherlands, having been a swimmer my whole entire life and learning that people don’t know how to swim, is like what? But you have to pay for access to a pool, and there’s not a ton of community pools out there anymore. You have to pay for somebody to teach you how to swim. A lot of the students in the class, even though they lived only a 15 or 20 minute drive from the beach, had never seen the ocean.
FORK IN THE ROAD
“My Dad always wanted me to be in science,” DJ says. “ I think he’s still disappointed that I’m not a researcher, like a Ph.D. scientist researcher in academia. I got an Ed.D., an educational doctorate. The switch started while she was still an undergraduate, and has sometimes been a source of friction. As an undergraduate, DJ realized the potential of the class she was teaching to bridge some gaps. “My heart was much more in STEM education and outreach than it was in being in academia and doing science research. I felt like the impact was bigger and great that way.
“I felt much more me doing outreach than I did doing the science research and I guess that’s also just being able to share the love I have for science with people who might not share that or might be scared of science.”
As a White Woman...
DJ focuses heavily on bringing minority faculty into her programs and to teaching them in both English and Spanish. Initially, as a white student teacher, she felt uncomfortable going into underrepresented communities. Her own teachers provided guidance. “For example one of the reflections they start you out with is research into the demographics of where you went to high school. Then you look into the demographics of where you’re going to be teaching and ask yourself, ‘what assumptions are you making?’ “ You know, I went to an upper middle class mostly white and Asian high school, and the students in most of our schools are Latinx and black and predominantly in low income brackets. It really takes a lot of introspection and getting comfortable about speaking to a lot of these issues relating to access, relating to race.
As an undergraduate student, you’re not really trained to think about race and how you yourself have perpetuated systemic racism,. It took a lot of reflection and comfort over the years to be able to speak of these issues. Because I know at the start that I was very defensive. I felt people were blaming it on me just because I was white. It took time to realize
it’s not me, it’s the system. It’s the system that’s broken, the system that’s not equal for many people. At least,when it comes to science education, we’re trying to fix that.
Read this interview with Dr. DJ Kast.