Engineer uses practical experience to promote STEM in schools

Keli Christopher is on a mission to introduce her profession to students.
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Davenport University hosts Sankofa STEM Academy, a five-week summer camp for middle school students. Courtesy Alfred Reeves Photography

A local engineer is using her experience to provide children of color in West Michigan with more math and science educational opportunities.

Keli Christopher, Ph.D., is an agricultural engineer and the founder and executive director of STEM Greenhouse. It is a nonprofit that offers programs to K-12 students to promote math and science proficiencies and address the lack of diversity within STEM professions — careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

As an agricultural engineer, the Grand Rapids native focused on soil and water, which entails drainage, irrigation and pollution as it relates to water shedding and from agricultural chemicals in the environment.

She helped design computer programming that created models that would predict the estimated volume of runoff from a given amount of rainfall. Christopher also designed places for farmers to house their agricultural chemicals so the chemicals would not spill and damage the environment. 

After actively working as an agricultural engineer, Christopher said she decided to start working with young people of color because she noticed a lot of STEM programs weren’t geared toward minority children.

“What I found was that there were two types of people developing STEM programs,” she said. “There were perhaps people of color who are used to dealing with children of color, but they had no STEM experience whatsoever. They were never in a STEM profession. Then there were also white STEM professionals trying to develop programming for children of color.

“Neither one could really hit the mark because if you’ve never been in a STEM profession, you don’t really know what it takes, and if you’ve never been a child of color, you don’t really know what they’re going through. So, I had a unique experience in that I’ve been the child of color and I’ve been a STEM professional. I could offer something that a lot of people just cannot offer to this space. Most people with my type of education are working as engineers and they’re doing engineering work, but I decided to go back to work with young people because I want to see a change. I want to see a change in the STEM profession. Not only because it is the right thing to do and it is fair, but because children of color or outnumbering white children in America’s public schools.”

In 2014, Christopher decided to start STEM Greenhouse, which offers different programs including Kids Count STEM Club, SAGE, STEM Scholars and Sankofa STEM Academy. 

Kids Count STEM Club is for students who are in grades 3-5. It focuses on mathematics by offering hands-on activities and games that utilize STEM concepts and it helps students with addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.

Sustainable Agriculture, Gardening and Ecology, or SAGE, is an agricultural life science program that is designed for middle school students. The program is based on a practical and applied science curriculum that features sustainable agriculture, gardening and ecology. The program follows a three-year curriculum. Christopher and her team of instructors visit two schools, including Dickinson Academy, where she went to school, and Martin Luther King Academy, twice a week for eight weeks.

STEM Scholars is an afterschool program for students who are enrolled in schools that do not have science teachers. Christopher currently is working with four schools.

“We go to the schools that don’t have science teachers for its middle school students,” she said. “The school that I started with is a school that I went to for elementary school. Now it has been converted to a K-8 building but the students still have one teacher all day, just like they were in elementary school. They don’t have a science teacher. They have one teacher trying to teach everything and science is the last thing on their mind. Plus, they usually don’t have a science background and they don’t have any budget for the science supplies. I started with one school and now we’re up to serving four schools, but there are additional schools that don’t have science teachers. There is a lack of science teachers. There is a lack of math teachers in our school systems, just teachers in general. There is a teacher shortage.”

Sankofa STEM Academy is a five-week summer camp program that is held at Davenport University. It focuses on math and science proficiency for middle school students. The program includes expert speakers in the STEM field, hands-on experiential learning and field trips. 

In addition to focusing on math and science, Christopher also incorporates technology and engineering in her programs. During the summer at Davenport, STEM Greenhouse worked with Loop Coding Center and its coding instructors to teach students coding. They worked on website development. Next summer, Christopher said she hopes students can take coding classes on animation using Adobe Suites so students can learn to code for sports analytics.

The engineering aspect of her program, Christopher said, is applying math and science to solve problems using the engineering design process such as the science method of doing research, creating a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis and coming to a conclusion.

“We give kids real-world problems and tell them to use the math and science that they have learned to solve that problem,” she said. “We come up with a lot of activities where they have to get creative and utilize what they’ve learned in math and science to solve a problem. There’s all kinds of little problems that we come up with, but we want them to know that there is an engineering design process, and we want them to try to learn how to go through that process as well.”

Christopher said solving problems takes intuition supplemented by a healthy dose of trial and error.

“There are so many different ways to solve problems. It just kind of depends on the problem that you’re trying to solve. You test things out and then if it doesn’t work, you test it out again. I think a lot of kids are not really used to that but that’s really what engineers do. There is so much failure involved in the success of engineering. There’s a little bit of patience that is required in engineering and so that’s a skill we hope the kids will gain.”

Christopher said she hopes to work with more schools and more students in the years ahead.

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