As Keli Christopher grew as a student – at Dickinson Elementary, Iroquois Middle and Ottawa Hills High School in GRPS, and then North Carolina A&T State for her undergrad, and finally at the University of Illinois for both her master’s and doctoral degrees – she made a pledge.

She promised herself that someday she would make it easier for students of color to succeed in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

She had been a trailblazer as the first Black person to earn her doctoral degree in Agricultural Engineering at Illinois, and she had drawn inspiration from the few women of color in her field that she had met along the way.

Now, as the founder of STEM Greenhouse she works to provide similar inspiration to the next generation of scholars of color who might aspire to careers in STEM, helping them grow their proficiency and cultivate education and career success.

“We know that our children have their best chance to succeed if they have a solid STEM foundation,” she said. “Knowing the great potential of GRPS scholars, we at STEM Greenhouse choose to take action and make an impact.”

That action and impact include a new program her organization is running for middle school scholars at Alger Middle School, Dickinson Academy and Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Academy.

It’s called the SAGE Program (Sustainable Agriculture, Gardening and Ecology) and is designed to teach middle school students in BIPOC communities in Grand Rapids about sustainable agricultural practices, gardening and the impact on ecology and the environment.

For eight weeks, STEM Greenhouse educators joined teachers in the GRPS schools twice a week to give their scholars a hands-on overview of agriculture, the environment and more, the areas that Christopher eventually was drawn to as a college student.

Christopher hopes that the middle school scholars impacted by STEM Greenhouse might have some of the awakenings she had when she was their age and thought she wasn’t good at math and therefore didn’t like math.

“It was in seventh grade that things started to change,” she recalled recently. “There were some great educators there (at Iroquois), people who challenged me to do more than I was comfortable with. And that really made a big difference in my life.”

She wants STEM Greenhouse to do the same for the next generation of GRPS scholars.

“We’re definitely trying to encourage students to go beyond their comfort zone,” she said. “This program, with its focus on sustainable agriculture and the environment, they don't always get a lot of exposure to those fields. And so, we want to show them how the science that they're learning in the classroom can translate to careers in agriculture and the environment.”

She also loves exposing scholars of color to career opportunities they might not have considered.

“People have to shift their mindset,” she said. “Sometimes they believe that agriculture is some bad thing, and they have a negative connotation with it. But smart, scientific people are doing a lot of research in agriculture, and it's important for people of color to be a part of that as well.”

Christopher noted that what she and her team at STEM Greenhouse do with their twice-weekly lessons has been well-curated and meets the Next Generation Science Standards, a national program intended to combat ignorance of science, create common standards for teaching and develop greater interest in science among students to, in turn, create more STEM majors in college.

We want to make sure that our time is wisely spent because these NGSS objectives need to be met, and we are working with GRPS educators to tailor our activities to enhance what they are already learning in the classroom,” she said.

Christopher added that when she was in middle school, she and her friends spent a lot of time outside.

Today’s middle school students spend more time with screens and technology, so the opportunities to, as she said, “just have dirt to play with” become less frequent.

“It is a little bit unusual for them to get their hands dirty, so we're excited about that,” she said with a broad smile.