Keli Christopher ‘98, was recognized at fall semester convocation as the Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award winner for the college. With her are Interim Dean Shirley Hymon-Parker, Ph.D., and Chancellor Harold L. Martin Sr.

Keli Christopher, Ph.D., is focused on growing STEM success stories.

At North Carolina A&T State University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in 1998, Christopher found her place among other bright and talented Black scholars. Today, as the founding CEO of STEM Greenhouse in her native Michigan, Christopher has built a space where children of color can grow into the next generation of STEM professionals.

“Black and brown children are becoming the majority of children in our society. We cannot continue to just educate white children and expect to keep that tech and engineering pipeline going,” said Christopher, whom A&T honored in November with a Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award at the fall semester convocation. “We need to do better by Black and brown children and make sure everybody is getting a STEM education.” 

Christopher brought that message to N.C. A&T’s convocation this year as the keynote speaker, sharing her story of success through STEM Greenhouse. 

Christopher leads middle schoolers in a math lesson.

The organization currently serves more than 600 youth in Grand Rapids, Michigan, through after school, in school and summer programming. In 2021, STEM Greenhouse was selected by Sony as one of 10 organizations in the nation to receive the Create Action grant, part of Sony’s broader social justice efforts to support people in underserved communities by celebrating and amplifying the efforts of local, community-based nonprofit organizations.

Christopher has served as the National President of Alpha Epsilon Honor Society for Agricultural Engineers and currently serves on the board of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council. She has been recognized with a Brilliance Award in the Social Change Agent category from West Michigan Woman magazine (2020), received the Malinda Sapp Legacy Award from the Grand Rapids Symphony (2021) and received the Nolan Groce Business Leadership Award from the Urban League of West Michigan (2023).

The valedictorian of her high school class in Grand Rapids, Mich., Christopher attended A&T on a full scholarship. Despite having no farming background, she majored in agricultural and biosystems engineering because she was intrigued by the environment and because a high school classmate had chosen the same program.

In the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, Christopher found a supportive and culturally comfortable environment among other Black people who loved agriculture, science and engineering as much as she did. She was a charter member of A&T’s chapter of Alpha Epsilon Honor Society — she served as the organization’s national president when she was in graduate school — and joined Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. and several other campus groups. 

Christopher counts three biological engineering professors among her mentors: Manuel Reyes, Ph.D., her advisor; Godfrey Gayle, Ph.D., who was department chair at the time; and Abolghasem Shahbazi, Ph.D.

“A&T gave me a good academic foundation to be successful,” Christopher said. “I knew I could go anywhere with my education and be successful, and I was successful.”

After graduating from A&T in 1998, Christopher got her master’s degree from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. In 2005, she became the first Black person to earn a doctorate in agricultural engineering from that university.

The next logical step was a tenure-track faculty position, but Christopher balked. Being the only Black person in her graduate school classes had been lonely and stressful. Becoming a professor would have continued that isolation and done nothing to bring other people of color into engineering.

“I wanted to do something that had a greater impact on people of color and children of color. I didn’t want other kids to have to go through what I went through to get a Ph.D.,” Christopher said. “I wanted things to change. I just felt like I had a lot of experience as a person of color in STEM to make a difference for children of color in STEM.”

So Christopher returned home to Grand Rapids and bided her time. She worked as an engineer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Kent County Conservation District. She also saw how local schools had short-changed Black and brown children.

Many children lacked knowledge of basic math concepts. Some didn’t have science teachers. Local schools seemed to believe — wrongly, in Christopher’s view — that STEM instruction meant 3D printers and robotics teams.

So in 2014, Christopher quit her job, reserved a room in a local library and one day a week after school taught math in a fun and rigorous way to elementary school girls. Her second class, this time of middle school girls, produced some amazing results: Research showed that her students improved their math skills at four times the rate of other STEM programs in western Michigan. Subsequent research has shown that participants in STEM Greenhouse summer programs gained two levels of math computation skills in five weeks.

“We needed a place where kids can grow and not just have one week of camp and expect them to become engineers,” Christopher said. “They needed years of programming. We wanted to invest years in these kids so they can actually achieve what we ask them to do.”

Continued success and some arm-twisting by Christopher attracted support from local foundations and corporate sponsors. Today, STEM Greenhouse has a staff of 12 and reaches nearly 1,000 local students each year with in school, after school and summer STEM programs. The goal is to put these underserved Grand Rapids children on track to take calculus in high school so they’re prepared to succeed in college. 

“We want these students to know that they have a place in STEM. I think that’s a powerful message and why we’ve been successful,” Christopher said. “I can’t wait to do more stuff. I’m trying to save the world. These kids in Grand Rapids are just the jumping-off point.”