This summer, Aquinas College’s campus has been buzzing with activity, including a studious group of over 100 students in 5th through 11th grades who are getting excited about STEM. The Sankofa STEM Academy serves children of color from the Grand Rapids area through STEM education that is as fun as it is impactful, and this year, Aquinas College is their Higher Education partner.

Two students look into microscopesSankofa, a word and symbol from the Akan people of Ghana, carries the message that one should look to one’s ancestors to guide the future. One way the students are encouraged to do this is through the names of the groups in which they take classes, like Kush, Inca, and Songhai– all ancient civilizations in Africa and South America that excelled in STEM. 

“We're trying to instill in them an appreciation for the role that black and brown people have played in STEM over the centuries so that they understand that when they are doing math and science, they are carrying on the legacy that was left for them,” said Dr. Keli Christopher,  founding Chief Executive Officer of STEM Greenhouse, the organization that puts on the Sankofa STEM Academy.

Dr. Christopher grew up right here in Grand Rapids. She’s passionate about providing the resources that vulnerable children in the community need to not just get by, but thrive. She also wants students of color to have mentors and teachers in STEM that look like them.

Students and teacher speaking around a table in a classroom

After graduating from high school in Grand Rapids, Dr. Christopher went to college in North Carolina receiving a bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering before attending the University of Illinois for a master’s and a doctorate degree in the same field. She worked in a few roles including teaching at the college level before she started the STEM Greenhouse. In total, the STEM Greenhouse serves over 500 students through daytime in-school programs, camps like Sankofa STEM Academy and more. 

“Our ideal student is the student who has a desire to do better, and all they really need is an opportunity,” she said. “I think that’s what a lot of our kids lack is just opportunities.”

Aquinas College is delighted to host Sankofa STEM Academy and support the work of the STEM Greenhouse. Students and their teachers have access to lecture halls, computer labs, biology laboratories, and standard classrooms in the Albertus Magnus Hall of Science. Students also get to enjoy the 100-acre wooded campus and get familiar with what college might feel like.

Students listening to a teacher who is smiling in front of a whiteboard

“We want kids to realize that college is for them,” said Dr. Christopher. “If you don’t have a family that goes to college, you don't understand that this is normal. You know my kids, they expect to go to college because that is what their parents did. But if you don't have that it's a little bit scarier.”

The students have made themselves at home, observing the local ducklings, finding shells in Coldbrook Creek, and walking trails through the woods. There might be some future Saints among them.

“It’s really been a blessing to have Aquinas open the space up to us,” said Dr. Christopher. “When God blesses you with something really beautiful that you can share with the community, that’s really cool.”

If you would like to learn more about the STEM Greenhouse, visit their website and sign up for their newsletter or follow their Facebook Page. The STEM Academy is always delighted to connect with STEM professionals who can speak to classes and find new community support. The STEM Greenhouse is funded by donations from corporate sponsors, so donating is an excellent way to support their work. You might also have a skill or connection that could help the work they are doing.