Viterbi houses James E. Ballinger engineer of the year

Darin Gray said his goal over the next few years is to focus on mitigating learning losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Darin Gary)

Darin Gray, the co-director of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering K-12 STEM Center, was recently named the James E. Ballinger Engineer of the Year 2020 by the Orange County Engineering Council  — an award which honors exceptional engineers renowned in their fields.

The OCEC honored Gray for his long-term work at the STEM Center and awarded him for his influence on disadvantaged students. For the last 25 years, Gray has been part of the STEM educational outreach and has helped many Black and Indigenous students, students of color and girls pursue STEM as a profession. Gray said his work aims to excite students about STEM and educate teachers about how to teach them.

“I’m just really appreciative, honored, that the OCEC thought enough of me and in terms of all the people who’ve won that award,” Gray said. “I’ve been to the ceremony back in the pre-COVID days, and the people who have won that award are some of the top people in the field, and to be included in that company — it was just such an honor.”

Gray said Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos’ motto, “changing the face of engineering,” is what he always strives for. He makes engineering fun by showing students what geometry and math coordinates can create. One example was when he taught kids about creating 3D computer-aided design for 3D printers. STEM kids love to have such activities, Gray said, but even drama students like it because they don’t have to build props by hand. 

“Attracting students to engineering is not an easy thing, particularly for students who are underrepresented and don’t have the means,” Yortsos said. “[Gray is] very persistent. Very understanding of the environment in which he works, [he’s] clearly an expert in that. Very passionate about making the connection between engineering and the underserved communities — in a way he is an ambassador of engineering to high school kids.”

The OCEC commemorates engineering work yearly at a gala event and honors the best engineers, scientists, educators and students. OCEC members can nominate a colleague or a friend through the OCEC Annual Awards Nomination form. In order to receive an award, OCEC sets high standards that require long-term achievements and the engineers to still be active in their fields.

Gray has both operational and program responsibilities at the STEM center. While in charge of diversity, equity and inclusion, Gray oversees a few STEM programs created to help elementary and high school students. He is responsible for the logistics of the center, such as budgeting, preparing youth compliance proposals and fundraising. During summers, Gray also teaches Discover Engineering at USC, which is a college class for high school students. 

Gray said he was always good in math and science, but his original plan in 10th grade was to become a doctor. Although placed in an advanced class at the time, Gray changed his medical direction after a girl he liked told him he should become an engineer. Gray said he didn’t know what an engineer was until then, and had to go to the library to find out.

“I just had a crush on her, and in my chemistry class I was the top student, even though there were a bunch of seniors there, I always outscored everybody else, and the fact that she thought I would be a good engineer was good enough for me,” Gray said.

While Gray’s crush led him to enroll in a summer engineering program in Detroit, his love for the field is what drove him above and beyond. Since then, Gray has received bachelor’s degrees in biomedical and electrical engineering and in math, and a master’s in teaching from USC. In 2018, Gray also received a doctorate in education technology from Boise State University.

Gray furthered his career by becoming a member of the California State Guard, where he teaches basic cyber coding. He is currently studying to receive a master’s degree in cyber security from California State University San Marcos and is set to graduate in May 2021.

Before becoming a teacher, Gray worked for the Hughes Aircraft Company. At the time, he also began volunteering and teaching computer skills to disadvantaged students at an alternative high school, where he also tutored them in the evenings in order to elevate their math knowledge. Gray said he soon realized there wasn’t a lot of focus on getting students interested in math, so he decided to step in and become a teacher. 

“I came from a similar neighborhood and it was school that helped me to change my life,” Gray said. “And so, I went to my boss at Hughes and I said I want to become a teacher. He didn’t believe me at first, he thought I was just playing. He said I don’t think so. So, I left to become a teacher.”

As Gray continued teaching, he took on the role of alternative education and work center outreach consultant at a different school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. For 20 years, he would spend mornings running the school — working on community outreach, teaching, hiring and budgeting.

In the afternoons, he would go to USC to run the after-school programs, such as the USC Viterbi Mission Science program, which helps elementary and middle school students gain STEM experience.

Gray’s former high school student from the Metropolitan Skills Center AEWC, Jecery Ninonuevo, said that both her and her daughter were able to graduate because of Gray’s program. Ninonuevo, who’s now a nursing home administrator, almost dropped out of school when she became pregnant at the age of 15. She said that Gray never abandoned his students and he would make sure they would all graduate. 

“I don’t think there’s any teachers out there who have the same empathy and compassion that he had for kids like me,” Ninonuevo said. “[Gray] would go above and beyond to make sure that you get those credits for high school graduation, like find ways to motivate you.”

Today, Gray continues to motivate students and focuses even more on improving diversity, equity and inclusion, because he said the pandemic is leaving kids of color and girls behind. When Gray worked in both private and public schools, he saw a big gap on what equipment kids had access to. Many students who don’t come from affluent areas either don’t have internet access or are unable to afford a laptop, and the coronavirus has increased that gap even more, Gray said. 

Gray’s goal over the next few years is to be able to deal with learning losses due to the coronavirus. The way Gray’s USC Viterbi K-12 STEM Center team is pursuing this goal now is by making sure that everything they do, from outreach to educational programs, emphasizes equity and is accessible to everyone.

“What Dean Yortsos talks about is ‘changing the face of engineering and making the world a better place,’ so we internalize that in everything that we do,” Gray said. “One of the ways you make the world a better place is by educating everybody. You empower everybody, how you change the face of engineering, how you change the face of STEM, by giving access.”