Black, woman engineer addresses STEM at the roots

Dr. Keli Christopher is the first Black person to get a Ph.D. in Agricultural Engineering from the University of Illinois and the third Black woman in the world to hold a Ph.D. in that field. A Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills High School graduate, Christopher says her inspiration was meeting a Black woman engineer. As founder of STEM Greenhouse, her goal is to provide children of color with role models who inspire them to pursue careers in science, math and other fields where Black, Brown and other underrepresented faces have not been traditionally seen.

“Typically, most students can’t aspire to be in a career field they are not familiar with and do not see themselves represented in,” Christopher says. “I have a Ph.D. in engineering and I did not decide to pursue that until I met a Black female engineer. Having role models and mentors is just as important as the curriculum. Students need to see themselves represented so they can believe they can do it.”

STEM Greenhouse has been offering after-school and summer STEM programs to children in elementary and middle school for five years. After-school programs are offered at five Grand Rapids Public Schools: Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Academy, Southwest Community Campus, Alger Middle School, and the school she attended as a child, Dickenson Academy. Examples of STEM Greenhouse lessons can be viewed on YouTube.

“We focus on schools that do not have certified science teachers for middle school students,” Christopher says. “Sometimes, people have asked me ‘Why don’t you just start a school?’ I tell them there are always students whose parents are without the knowledge of or resources to send kids to a different school and I am committed to going to the schools with the least resources.”

Middle school students taking part in STEM Scholars gain confidence and proficiency in STEM with an emphasis on retention and growth of mathematics. The Girls Count Math Club inspires girls, grades three through five, to excel in math — only 13.9% of Kent County’s Black students are proficient in math.

“Oftentimes, in STEM programs, people see the solution as a day of coding or week of STEM camp. The remediation our students need, given the lack of quality educational resources, needs to be much greater than a day or a week,” Christopher says. “They need high dosage. We aren’t going to see achievement when we provide band-aid solutions to systemic problems.”

The summer program, STEM Sankofa Academy, offers students classes in math, science, art and culture, computer coding and college success. On Fridays, speakers from STEM professions come in to do hands-on projects with students. Friday afternoons are reserved for fun outings around town. Christopher hopes to expand programming for the 2022-2023 school year to include high school students.

“I was speaking to a group of science, business and technology folks the other day, telling them that since 2014, children of color have outnumbered white children in our schools,” Christopher says. “Our future is going to be much more brown. These middle school students are going to be in the workforce in a few years. Children of color do not have academic resources. We are putting ourselves in jeopardy in the global market when we are only providing a quality education for certain students. We’re not doing the kids a favor. We’re helping ourselves — and if we are smart, we need to start investing in them now.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy STEM Greenhouse

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