Gray received the award as a nod to his decades-long career in STEM education outreach, during which he has served as a profound positive influence for hundreds of students systematically underserved in STEM.
“This top recognition from the Orange County Engineering Council, recognizes Dr. Gray’s substantial impact on generations of students from under-resourced families, historically underrepresented in STEM and in engineering,” said Yannis C. Yortsos, the dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.
The James E. Ballinger Engineer of the Year award is given to an individual with outstanding professional qualifications with an exceptional reputation for engineering accomplishments and leadership.
“I’m overwhelmed and appreciative of the recognition from my peers and from a prestigious organization such as OCEC and honored that I was found deserving of this award,” Gray said.
In his role as the co-director of the Viterbi K-12 STEM Center, Gray is primarily responsible for overseeing the program and keeping it running smoothly in its mission to inspire, inform, and impact underserved, disadvantaged, and historically underrepresented K-12 students to develop a lifelong identity in STEM. Gray has served in this role since the creation of the STEM Center in July 2019.
Over the course of his 23 years at USC, Gray has initiated and implemented a half-dozen academic year STEM programs and 13 STEM summer programs. He runs and teaches the annual Discover Engineering summer school, in addition to his role as the co-director of the new K-12 STEM Center.
“Darin is driven by more than a love of STEM, but also by his sense of social justice: the need to provide students systematically under-resourced in STEM with the tools and passion to use STEM as a means for solid careers and powerful solutions to society’s technological challenges,” said Katie Mills, who serves alongside Gray as STEM Center co-director. “It’s a pleasure to work with someone so dedicated to bringing STEM to youth, teachers and districts.”
Affectionately known as “Mr. The Science Guy,” by his students, Gray stands out as a teacher because of his love of engineering, his enthusiasm for the subject, and his deep understanding of the concepts he teaches. An important part of his teaching philosophy is his goal to impart the “Fight On” spirit in every student he teaches.
“I want my students to know that it doesn’t matter what your situation or circumstances are or what obstacles you have to overcome,” Gray said. “I want my students to see their school as a place of opportunity and learn to develop the resilience and determination embodied by the ‘Fight On’ spirit.”
Gray was born in Detroit, Michigan, and his curious nature drew him towards a passion for science from a young age. “I was always a tinkerer and a maker,” Gray said.
He became interested in engineering during high school. He said he was drawn to the field because it combined his passion for science with his love of making things, building things, and learning how things worked.
He worked as an engineer at Hughes Aircraft company for a number of years, until an experience volunteering at an alternative high school inspired him to shift the focus of his career. Gray realized there was a lack of quality math teachers in inner-city schools, which led him to leave engineering to become a teacher.
In 1996, Gray began working part-time in STEM outreach at USC Viterbi. He did so while simultaneously working part-time for the Los Angeles Unified School District, where he ran an alternative high school.
He received a master’s degree in teaching from USC in 2011, followed by an Ed.D. in educational/instructional technology from Boise State University in 2018. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in cybersecurity from California State University San Marcos; he expects to graduate this spring.
“While his education is impressive, everyone first notices Darin’s enthusiasm for teaching STEM, his ability to incite passion in children and young adults for STEM, his tireless dedication to ensuring any event or program is run to its highest potential,” Yortsos said. “His compassion to change the mindsets of students who do not yet see themselves as becoming students in STEM disciplines has changed the lives of thousands of students over the past two decades.”
In the future, Gray hopes to elevate the STEM outreach work at USC to a national level to inspire other universities to emulate the successful Trojan model. “We partner with our communities to create a space where university students and faculty can come together with K-12 students to foster learning and excellence,” Gray said.