Inside Track: Cultivating STEM excitement in young students
Keli Christopher’s ‘recreational’ Mind Boggle programming focuses on fun, hands-on science for kids.
Keli Christopher is sparking students’ interest in science and math through recreational STEM programming to better prepare them for college and beyond.
Christopher launched Mind Boggle in 2011 with a mission of providing a fun, hands-on experience for students in kindergarten through high school in the areas of math, science and engineering.
Although she now holds a bachelor of science in agricultural engineering from North Carolina A&T State University, and a doctorate and master’s degree in the same field from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Christopher said growing up she had an affinity for writing, rather than math and science.
“I hated math pretty much my entire girlhood. When I was in middle school, I was put into an honors math class and, up until that point, I was an honors English student — I was a good writer,” said Christopher.
“I was so petrified of going into this honors math class. I would learn better if I wrote it down, so my notes were amazing: I had figures and tables and drawings. One thing I liked about math was there were fewer parameters for the grading. It was either right or it was not.”
As Christopher went on to pursue her college degrees, she experienced first-hand how demanding the science and engineering curriculum can be.
“There are so many students who get to college who might have an interest in science and engineering, but they usually change their major because it is a very rigorous field, and also you just don’t have a lot of support,” she said.
“Having gone through that myself, I feel like I am really prepared and knowledgeable about what it would take to have a kid really take on some of the science careers beyond just a field trip or some tour at a plant.”
After being the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in agricultural engineering from University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Christopher said she went to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service in California, before moving to Michigan. She also has served as an online math and science instructor, worked as a math curriculum specialist for the Grand Rapids Area Pre-College Engineering Program, and served as an engineer with the Kent County Conservation District.
“Even when I was in graduate school, I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” said Christopher. “Every now and then, I would do programs with my children’s friends with science, and it was fun. I just kept rolling around the idea more and more and decided to start a business doing that. It required very little capital because most of it is knowledge, and I have that.”
Mind Boggle provides programming in science, math and engineering that promotes critical thinking, literacy and teamwork. Programs also allow students to explore subjects such as chemistry, physics, engineering and biology. The organization provides afterschool programs and summer camps with names such as Cool Chemistry Concoctions, Fun-omenal Physics, Crime Scene Investigation, Magnificent Magnets, Light & Color Spectacle, Conservation Science and Food Science Fun.
“The focus is on fun, hands-on science because I figure, with my type of activities, it is important the kids have fun — because if not, they are not going to want to come back. It is really recreational science and math,” said Christopher.
“I think there are a lot of kids, irrespective of race or gender, who don’t give math and science a good shot. Even if you don’t go into a science or engineering career, you are going to need to take the ACT to get into college. You are going to need those skills anyway.”
Beginning with two small summer camps, Mind Boggle has grown over the years to partner with local schools and community organizations: East Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department, Forest Hills Public Schools, The Gatherings of Hope initiative, Grand Rapids University Prep Academy, Grandville Public Schools, Grand Rapids Public Schools LOOP Program, Kentwood Public Schools ARCH Program and Rockford Public Schools.
Based online at mind-boggle.org, the programs are offered onsite at community centers and academic institutions.
“I do a lot of summer programming, so this is coming into a busy season for me. (They) are usually week-long camps but multiple weeks during the summer,” said Christopher. “I work with students through high school, but usually my camps are for kindergarten through sixth grade.”
As with any business, Christopher said one of the most challenging aspects of owning and operating Mind Boggle is not having a guarantee of success from one year to the next. When the federal budget sequestration went into effect March 1, 2013, resulting in the loss of approximately $22 million in funding for primary and secondary education in Michigan, Christopher said she felt the effect of the cuts.
“It impacted a lot of schools’ funding, and so the extra money they might have had to bring someone in to do a robotics club or an afterschool STEM program, they didn’t have those funds anymore,” said Christopher.
“Some of my business depends on that type of thing, and some is dependent on parents to pay. For schools that require some grant or some funding to have programs like this get off the ground, it impacts my bottom line and my business.”
As a way to provide additional programming and resources while having more control over funding, Christopher launched the nonprofit STEM Greenhouse in 2014. As a nonprofit, Christopher can apply for grants to provide an alternative source of funding if a school is not able to secure needed financing.
“STEM is a popular term now — it is a big buzz word. However, I just felt a lot of students, especially minority students and female students, were not being prepared for engineering and science careers. I realize (Mind Boggle) is more recreational, but I really have a desire to help kids actually be prepared so they could go into a career in engineering or science,” said Christopher.
“That is where the ‘greenhouse’ comes from because the goal is to cultivate an environment where they can really learn, think differently and prepare themselves for what they would have to do.”
Earlier this year, Christopher was recognized at the 2015 Giants Awards with the Milo Brown Business Award, given to an individual exemplifying strong successful business knowledge and ownership. Despite the fact that she feels Mind Boggle’s business cycle is still very young, Christopher said she was definitely honored and encouraged for the work she is doing.
“Being an entrepreneur is scary, but I was really happy when I took that leap, even though it meant a lot of uncertainty,” she said about launching Mind Boggle. “I’ve never regretted it because it has given me the ability to chart my own path. I can follow my passion and do exactly what I want to do. I really love that.”
Looking ahead, Christopher said there are a lot of things she would like to accomplish professionally, including raising awareness of Mind Boggle and the programs provided, and also expanding the services to communities in the Greater Grand Rapids area and in West Michigan.
“I have to admit I also just have a real desire to see things change for minorities, for women who are interested in STEM, or even if they are not interested in STEM, are prepared to go to college and not be afraid of math or science and have that confidence that they can do it if they choose to,” said Christopher.
“That is what I want for my kids, so my goal is for other children to have that ability to make those decisions, to make those choices for careers because they are prepared.”