UIX: Dr. Keli Christopher and Mind Boggle help young learners develop STEM skills

If you love your work, it isn’t work. That’s the spirit Dr. Keli Christopher maintains in her role as founder and head educator of Mind Boggle. Read more about her efforts to emphasize STEM education in this story by UIX Editor Matthew Russell, with images by Steph Harding.
If you love your work, it isn’t work. That’s the spirit Dr. Keli Christopher maintains in her role as founder of Mind Boggle, and one she hopes to pass on to younger generations of children though STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education.
Mind Boggle is a year-round program aimed at helping students in kindergarten through 12th grades with STEM education. Christopher leads classes in hands-on activities, promoting critical thinking, literacy, and team work. She established Mind Boggle to provide STEM experiences to children throughout the community.
Christopher maintains that students, especially girls, tend to lose interest in science and math as they progress from elementary to middle school. To reverse this trend, Christopher uses Mind Boggle to “make science and math relevant and exciting.”
Programs include “Cool Chemistry Concoctions,” where students identify acids and alkaline solutions using cabbage, learn about polymers by making slime, and investigate molecules by making bubbles. In “Fun-omenal Physics,” kids learn about basic physics concepts and machines by working in teams, using the engineering design process. “Crime Scene Investigation” lets students explore forensic science though chromatography, identifying “criminals” with ink evidence. Programs centered on magnets, light and color, environmental conservation, and food science are also offered.
Mind Boggle’s “Girls Count” program is a drop-in math club offered at no cost to girls in 3rd through 5th grades. Christopher says the goal of the club is to give girls more confidence in math by reinforcing math concepts through fun games and activities.
When Christopher founded Mind Boggle in 2011, she was working as an engineer. She received a BS from North Carolina A&T State University and an MS and Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She says it was her role as a mother, though, that led her to start Mind Boggle. 
“I had a toddler and a preschooler and I was interested in having a more flexible schedule as well as fulfilling a desire to become an entrepreneur,” Christopher says. “As a parent, I knew that I wanted my children to be able to approach science and math without fear and to associate those subjects with fun. I didn't want my children to feel limited to certain careers the way I always felt growing up. I knew that other parents felt the same way and there is a lot of buzz in education these days on preparing students for STEM careers.”

With children in elementary school now, Christopher has more time to devote to her business, although its origins were humble.

“The first summer, I had only a few camps in a couple of locations and many of the students who participated were children of friends and family,” she says, acknowledging growth has been strong since the start.

Christopher now offers English and Spanish classes. “This summer I had to hire four teachers for more than 20 camps and I personally went to five schools each week presenting science to kids in 1st to 12th grades.”

With Mind Boggle’s evolution, Christopher has realized she’s carved a career out of her passion.

“It hasn't been easy but it has been very fulfilling,” she says.
In keeping a small business prospering, Christopher says she’s needed dedication and perseverance from the start. She handles all administrative duties, and to keep costs under control, volunteers a lot of her services. 

Many of the students in Mind Boggle programs come from the suburbs of Grand Rapids. Christopher works with school districts through their own activity coordination, including Grand Rapids Public Schools’ LOOP program, or ARCH at Kentwood Public Schools. She also coordinates classes with municipal parks and recreation departments and nonprofit organizations. Summer camps and after school programming are the biggest clients of Mind Boggle, with students enrolling from kindergarten through 8th grade, and sometimes even high school.
Christopher says it’s been at times difficult to reach the children in some of the city’s neighborhoods, but she reaches out to them any way she can, adapting her services to their needs.

“Honestly, as a black woman, I have often felt disappointed that I can't work more with minority and female students, but oftentimes the schools simply don't have funding,” she says. “I recently started a nonprofit organization called the STEM Greenhouse, with a mission to prepare minority and female youth for STEM careers. My goal is to seek funding so that I can make a difference in my own community.”
Throughout Christopher’s experience as an educator and a small business owner, she’s learned a few lessons of her own, but one thing that hasn’t changed is her focus on keeping learning fun. She says an excitement for learning is what has fueled her passion for engineering and knowledge, and it is a fire she hopes to ignite in every student she reaches.

For more information on Christopher and Mind Boggle, visit http://mind-boggle.org/

Matthew Russell is the Project Editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected].
Photography by Steph Harding 
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