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Cultivating future scientists, techies, mathematicians & engineers

Organization brings after-school STEM to students of color

Grand Rapids — The challenge at hand was to design a catapult with the ability to fling a marshmallow far and with precision. A team member adept at catching marshmallows in a bucket would also prove helpful.

“Every winner I’ve had has had a different way of doing it,” said Jahleel Levi-Alford, director of STEM Scholars, a middle-school program offered by STEM Greenhouse, as he invited students to grab boxes, tape, spoons and toilet paper, and begin crafting.

“Don’t make it too stable or you won’t be able to move the spoon,” said Dontell Droughn, as he, Shakuru Abasi and Esmeralda Perez assembled their catapult during the design process. They taped their spoon to a toilet paper roll and affixed it to a solid base made from an empty cracker box.

Giancarlo Salgado’s design was smaller than his peers — “easy-grab,” he explained. He hoped it would make for straightforward flinging.

The sixth- through eighth-grade Dickinson Elementary students worked together during the after-school session, readying their contraptions for play. Then, in a mini bracket tournament, teams vied to see who could land the most marshmallows into a bucket, minute-to-win-it style.

The competition was the culminating activity of STEM Scholars’ fall semester, during which students participated in hands-on science, engineering, technology and math projects.  

STEM Greenhouse, a Grand Rapids-based non-profit organization, also offers a middle-school program on applied agricultural science; a summer program for high-school students at a local university; and Kids Count, a math focused program for third-through-fifth graders. STEM Scholars is also offered at Martin Luther King, Jr. Academy, Alger Middle and Southwest Community Campus.

From left, seventh-graders Shakuru Abasi and Esmeralda Perez say they’ve gotten better in math and science

STEM Careers Within Their Reach

Founded in 2014 by Keli Christopher, a 1994 Ottawa Hills High School graduate who attended Dickinson Elementary as a child, STEM Greenhouse aims to expose students to STEM and related careers and boost their proficiency in science and math.

“The students we are working with come from a variety of circumstances and situations. If you are in an environment where you don’t see people who look like you doing math and science, it is very easy to believe that it’s not for you,” she said.  

“We want to make sure that they are not only learning math and science, but they believe a math, science or STEM career is within their reach.”

Christopher is the first Black person to earn a doctorate in agricultural engineering from the University of Illinois and the third Black person in the world to get a doctorate in agricultural engineering. She has also worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, and as an engineer for the Kent County Conservation District.

‘The students we are working with come from a variety of circumstances and situations. If you are in an environment where you don’t see people who look like you doing math and science, it is very easy to believe that it’s not for you.’

— STEM Greenhouse founder Kelli Christopher

As a young Black woman in engineering, she realized the need early on to increase representation of women and people of color in STEM. She knew students of color were not seeing themselves in those careers.

“I saw a lot of STEM programming happening, but I didn’t feel much of it was going to help students because we are battling a problem with proficiency in math and science,” Christopher said. “If you aren’t proficient in math or science, there’s really no point in pushing a STEM career. We have to make sure students have a math and science foundation first, before we try to get them into engineering.”

She and her staff focus on reaching students with accessible programs. “(Our mission) is to prepare children of color for careers in STEM. We need to be at the schools that have the highest proportion of students of color and often those schools are struggling with science and math proficiency,” she said.

Research from the  Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy showed Dickinson students in STEM Scholars in the 2017-18 school year (most recent data available) achieved more growth than expected on Michigan’s Math MAP Test, and 91% more growth than the non-STEM Scholars in the study. See research here. STEM Greenhouse is also one of 10 nationwide winners to receive Sony Electronics’ 2022 Create Action grant.

Research also showed students increased their interest in math and science careers and in taking higher level math and science classes in high school.

Christopher includes a focus on growth mindset (instilling the belief that talents can be developed) and socio-emotional learning in her programming. Students also learn about Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

The STEM Scholars team Cheese-its — self-named by students — landed the most marshmallows in the bucket, winning the team large candy bars and family-size bags of chips.

It’s games like these that have captured their attention this semester, and things like creating elephant toothpaste that got them thinking and enjoying STEM, students said.

“I’ve gotten better in math and science and I’ve grown to love science,” said seventh-grader Shakuru, who wants to be an engineer. “I love making things and building things.”

Sixth-grader Kyler Jackson agreed that STEM Scholars has been good for him.

“It’s helping me very much; I’m getting better at math even though I’m already great.”

Explore more unique video stories of students learning, interesting school programs and educators working to help all children succeed.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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