By Shanika P. Carter
Dr. Keli Christopher is committed to the education, support, and success of students of color in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). As the Founding Chief Executive Officer of STEM Greenhouse in Grand Rapids, Dr. Christopher provides programs for the youth that instills a solid foundation, one that she felt was needed to properly prepare children of color for careers in STEM.
“I noticed a lack of STEM programming,” says the Grand Rapids native and graduate of Ottawa Hills High School. “Most STEM programs are either done by white STEM professionals who have no idea what it takes for a person of color to successfully navigate a career in STEM, or it is done by well-meaning teachers who have no idea what it takes to become a person of color in STEM.”
With an agricultural engineering background, Dr. Christopher knows this experience firsthand but has worked hard during her educational journey, earning a B.S. from North Carolina A&T State University, and a M.S. and a Ph.D. from University of Illinois, where she became the first black person to earn a Ph.D. in the department and the third black woman in the world to earn a Ph.D. in the field.
Dr. Christopher knew that someone needed to step up and prepare children for this academic rigor required to obtain a degree in STEM, so she created STEM Greenhouse – a metaphor for incubation and growth – for third to 12th graders to have access to programming assisting them with their learning and growth. Dr. Christopher says that the lack of professional mentorship available to her was one of the reasons she does this work.
There were some challenges as Dr. Christopher worked on building STEM Greenhouse, including the passing of her husband in 2018. She admits that there were times she thought the logical response was to quit, but she says she stepped out on faith, knowing God had provided her the tools to do the work. “I’m glad I didn’t give up. Resilience is like a muscle. I’m very strong. I honestly feel that I can do anything I set my mind to.”
The mother of a son and daughter, a junior in high school and an eighth grader, respectively, Dr. Christopher says that the investment in the children of STEM Greenhouse is paying off, with math and science programming available during the school day, after school, and during the summer.
“I see STEM Greenhouse growing throughout West Michigan and even the state,” says Dr. Christopher, adding, “It can grow beyond that, of course, but I’m very particular about program quality and that means more to me than quantity.”
The biggest hurdle for the organization, according to Dr. Christopher, has been the newness of it all, along with the limited idea others have of what integrating STEM into schools really means, adding that it isn’t always about robots or other technology if the skillset hasn’t been met. She is pressing the community to ask the following questions: How can organizations walk alongside school districts that need community investment? How can organizations work with school districts to put the kids first? “We are not going to get the next generation of STEM professionals without black and brown children becoming proficient in math and science.”
Dr. Christopher advises the youth to be cautious and pray for discernment regarding what path to follow when they may feel discouraged or unsure. She shares that she probably would not be where she is today if she had listened to and followed the advice of others, especially those who looked like her. Dr. Christopher says that she has been blessed to have intuition that has never failed her and be willing to take a chance.
“When we invest in children’s education in a meaningful way, for years, we will get the reward of having a diverse talent pipeline. Right now, STEM industries are struggling with not having any pipeline at all. We need children of color in STEM.”
The vision of STEM Greenhouse is a diverse, globally competitive STEM community through equity in K-12 STEM education. For more information, visit https://stemgreenhouse.org