May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

Interview with Tokiwa Smith of SEM Link

Posted: Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

by Eric Lewis

The Next Generation Science Standards are coming soon.  They emphasize engineering solutions and communicating ideas, and this makes Science Fairs and scientific investigations all the more important to the education of our students.  So, I recently caught up with Tokiwa Smith, Founder and Executive Director of SEM Link – a non-profit organization that connects K-12 students with the STEM community to engage them in hands-on STEM activities and expose them to STEM careers. 

Eric:  Tokiwa, what is SEM Link?

TokiwaScience, Engineering and Mathematics Link Inc., (SEM Link) is a nonprofit that I founded in 2005 in Atlanta, Georgia on the premise that exposure to members of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) communities is critical to student achievement and career exploration in math and science.  Our two core programs, Experimental Design Program and Math and Science Career Academy, enhance the STEM educational experience for K-12 students by providing them with opportunities to engage in hands-on STEM activities, explore STEM careers and learn about real-world applications of STEM. Since our inception we have served thousands of youth in Atlanta, the San Francisco Bay Area and the Washington DC Metro Area.  Our San Francisco Bay Area programming began in 2010.

Eric:  What programs does SEM Link offer?

TokiwaThe organization has a two-core program model, Experimental Design Program and Math and Science Career Academy. 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. This program provides science fair judges and mentors for community organizations and schools upon request. The Math and Science Career Academy exposes students to math and science through hands-on activities, real-world applications and career exploration.  The signature event for this program is our STEM career fair, which we currently host in Atlanta and Oakland, which is an event set up like a job fair where youth get an opportunity to meet and interact with STEM professionals, who have prepared hands-on activities to expose youth to their career. This program is also where we go into schools and community organizations to have classroom visits, participate in community events such as science festivals, host field trips, donate laboratory equipment to schools and whatever other creative programs/events that will expose youth to STEM.

Eric:  What was your pathway to your current position and why did you create this organization?

TokiwaWhen I graduated from college in 2001, I didn’t want to pursue a career as a chemical engineer but wanted to make a difference in the world.  A few months after graduating from college I began working in a STEM education program at a university in Atlanta that ensured that community college STEM majors continued their education at a 4-year academic institution and beyond. The idea for SEM Link came in the 2002-03 academic year while I was coordinating an after-school and tutorial program at a middle school in Atlanta. I had several conversations with the kids about what they wanted to be when they grew up and not one of them wanted to be a STEM professional. I wanted to give the students an opportunity to meet and interact with STEM professionals, so they could consider STEM careers as an option for them when they grow up.  The vision statement of the organization is “unveiling potential through exposure” and that is the main goal of the organization to expose as many children as we can to as many STEM disciplines as we can by connecting them to the STEM community through our various programs and events.

Eric:  What opportunities are available for students interested in STEM?

Tokiwa: Right now is a great time for any student that has an interest in STEM to explore and/or pursue a STEM career. It has become a hot topic in education, so there are many resources being poured into the STEM education from pre-K to graduate school. These resources not only include opportunities for academic skill development needed to pursue a STEM career as well as opportunities for hands-on and out of school time learning opportunities. In addition, STEM is one of the few sectors in the economy that is still experiencing job creation and growth, which means that if you want to pursue a career in one of those fields you have a better chance of building a career in this field if you develop the professional expertise and skills necessary to fill one of these positions.

Eric:  How can teachers/students/families get involved?

TokiwaOur programs target K-12 students, with most of the programs taking place during out of school time and in the community but a few during the school day. Our events, listed on our program calendar; our next major event will be our 3rd Annual San Francisco Bay Area STEM career fair on March 2 at Laney College in Oakland.  We encourage K-12 parents to bring their children to our events and teachers to encourage their students and their families to participate in their events.  For teachers, there are programs that we have available at your school site; our Schools and Community Organization page on our website has more information.

Eric:  How can scientists and engineers get involved?

TokiwaWe can’t achieve our work without the support of the STEM community; therefore we need scientists and engineers to volunteer with the organization. We have a diversity of opportunities that are virtual, one-time or ongoing that you can find by a detailed description by visiting our volunteer match page.

Eric:   What are some success stories that you would like to highlight?

TokiwaAs an organization, we have had many successes over the years, our STEM career fairs have exposed hundreds of youth to over 35 STEM disciplines. Our Experimental Design Programs has supported over 100 students and 20 school districts and community organizations with their STEM fairs. Our participation in community events such as the Bay Area Yuri’s Night Celebration, the US Science and Engineering Festival and the Bay Area Science Festival has allowed us to engage thousands of youth in hands-on STEM activities in the community. However, my favorite story to share is how the impact our programs, in particular our classroom visits, had on a child.  Dr. LaToya Myles advisory board co-chair and an environmental scientist visited a 3rd grade classroom in Oakland in 2011. We visited this class because the teacher requested us to do so after a little girl in her class told her classmates that she wanted to be a scientist when she grew up and the boys in her class told her that girls couldn’t be scientist. Dr. Myles spent about 45 minutes in the classroom talking about her journey to become an environmental scientist and her research in Air Quality. As a result of Dr. Myles visiting her classroom not only does this little girl know that is possible for women to be scientists, but so do the other children in her class.

Eric:  Thanks so much, Tokiwa. Where can we find you online?

TokiwaOur website is www.semsuccess.org.   We are on Facebook, so you can like our page www.facebook.com/semlinkinc and/or you can follow us on twitter (our handle is @semlink).

Written by Eric Lewis

Eric Lewis

Eris Lewis is high school area science support in the San Francisco Unified School District LEAD office.

One Response

  1. […] the Bay Area Science Fair website and the Science and Humanities Symposium website.  And, please read my interview with Tokiwa Smith – the director of SEM Link – in this month’s eCCS.  Tokiwa’s organization might be really […]

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In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the NGSS Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.