This month's issue of Scientific American Magazine is a special edition about Cities: Better, Greener, Smarter. Having been born and raised in a city - Memphis, Tennessee, and presently living in another city - St. Louis, Missouri - I'm always interested in ways that urban areas seem to be the center of all kinds of attention. That attention can be positive: lots of opportunities, center of innovation, culture -- and negative: over-crowding, crime, poverty, disparity.

Since, I focus on science outreach to urban audiences I wanted to highlight some of the great work being done in cities. I was reading the article in the special Cities Issue: Brains over Buildings: To rejuvenate urban centers, look to teachers and entrepreneurs and I though of the work being done by Tokiwa T. Smith, Founder and Executive Director of Science, Engineering and Mathematics Link Inc (SEM Link). She is both an (informal STEM) educator education and (social) entrepreneur who is doing some amazing STEM outreach in Atlanta, Georgia, and in the San Francisco Bay area of California.

Tokiwa T. Smith

Exactly what type of outreach do you and SEM Link do?

SEM Link’s mission is to promote student achievement and career exploration in math and science for K-12 students. We connect K-12 students to the STEM community to provide positive role models for youth to pursue STEM careers. Our two core programs, Experimental Design Program and Math and Science Career Academy, provide students with opportunities to develop their math and science skills by enhancing the classroom learning experience and teaching them skills that are transferable to other areas of life. The Experimental Design Program teaches students how to design and conduct experiments for math and science fairs utilizing research, laboratory and scientific literacy skills gained through individual and group learning opportunities as well as mentoring. We provide science fair project mentors and judges for STEM competitions at schools and community organizations. The Math and Science Career Academy exposes students to math and science through hands-on activities, real-world applications and career exploration.

Why do you do this? What inspired/inspires you to do this outreach?

I do this work because I feel like it was what I was put on this earth to do. I was a girl that loved and excelled in math and science and was encouraged to do so. I want to equip students, especially those that are historically underrepresented in these fields, with the confidence and tools to excel and pursue these fields by connecting them with positive role models that are STEM undergraduate, graduates, professionals and retirees. Many kids don’t pursue STEM careers not because they aren’t capable of doing so, but because they haven’t been exposed to STEM careers and professionals. What inspires me to continue to this work is the excitement that I see on the kids faces when they are engaged in various STEM activities with members of the STEM community. What is also exciting is when I see that STEM undergraduates, graduates, professionals and retires excited about the opportunity to pass on their passion and expertise for STEM to the next generation.

Why do you focus on urban communities? How or why do you relate to these communities?

I grew up in Miami, Florida, and have only lived in urban communities, so it feels natural for me to focus on them. Children in urban communities grow up in a diversity of households with various experiences. What is common for children, no matter their experience and what I experienced growing up, is that I wasn’t exposed to many hands-on STEM activities or STEM professionals. I grew up with many college-educated adults in my life, but I didn’t meet my first STEM professional until high school. Fortunately for me, my love of STEM was strong enough in spite of my lack of exposure to pursue a STEM major in college, but that is not the case for many students. It is important for me to expose and encourage urban youth in STEM as early in their educational career as possible so they can think about pursuing those STEM careers. I have a 7 year old mentee in Oakland, that has a natural inclination to become a biologist and I do my best to nurture interest and develop her skills in the field. We are currently on a quest to visit all the STEM museums in the San Francisco Bay Area. The great thing about being in an urban community is that resources and facilities are easily available to you to engage and expose youth to STEM.

How does SEM contribute to the idea of a better future for urban areas?

As the country talks about the current state of the economy and jobs, STEM is one of the few sectors where there is still job growth and creation. If we encourage and equip our children to pursue STEM careers, especially in urban areas where many of the employment opportunities are, we create a homegrown pipeline for the future STEM workforce. If you invest in K-12 STEM education, you create children that are prepared to attend institutions of higher learning and major in STEM fields. Therefore you create a educated population that is ready to enter the workforce instead of the alternatives that are possible for urban youth such as unemployed, underemployed, incarceration and other things.

Final thoughts?

One of my favorite quotes by one of my favorite educators Ms. Marian Wright Edelman is “The future which we hold in trust for our own children will be shaped by our fairness to other people’s children”. It is easy for me as a social entrepreneur and STEM educator to think about investing in the lives of other people’s children because it is what my career is devoted to. However, no matter what your career is, you should make it a priority to invest in other people children in a way that honors your values, your expertise and the resources available to you. Not everyone may be able to engage in direct service like working with the kids, but maybe you can donate your money or your professional expertise to help organizations that serve youth. The children are truly our future and whether you are a parent or not, it is your responsibility to ensure that all children have a bright future.

If you're interested in learning more about SEM Link, you can follow their blog or join their Facebook Group. You might also want to support their efforts by using Search Engine or Online Shopping Tool: Goodsearch id#884425.