Written by Mike Savona
Aliyah Elijah grew up knowing that she wanted to be a teacher. “I come from a family where education is very important – my grandmother was an educator for more than 30 years” she tells me. “I grew up nurtured and supported with a love for education and tremendous intellectual curiosity” she says. So it should come as no surprise that this brilliant and talented 25-year-old is already shaking up our preconceptions of education and how to teach young children to appreciate science and mathematics.
Aliyah and her six siblings grew up in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. She attended school first at the Universal Institute Charter School and Hill Freeman Middle School and later at Parkway Northwest High School. After graduation, Aliyah matriculated to Millersville University where she studied education and learned about an educational method known as S.T.E.M. – short for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Aliyah was instantly captivated. “S.T.E.M. integrates all four disciplines into one project or assignment in a way that makes it fun for kids to learn” she explains. “It’s almost unfair – they enjoy the project so much they don’t really realize they’re learning.”
She explains the S.T.E.M. method using an example that she’s employed in a number of workshops – building a boat sturdy enough to carry a defined cargo. Students are given materials to construct their own vessel and to pass must show that their boat will not only float but will carry the required cargo down a defined course to the finish line. To accomplish this objective, students ultimately use all four S.T.E.M. disciplines to design and construct a suitable craft but because the project is a hands-on challenge, the effort seems less theoretical and abstract than traditional classroom instruction. Less work and more play.
Aliyah enjoyed S.T.E.M. so much that she included it as a minor in her undergraduate studies. This led her to do more research and reading about the current state of how science and math are taught in American schools and to see how poorly American students perform in these disciplines – especially in inner cities. Seeing an opportunity to bring radical changes to the way kids interact with science and math, Aliyah became determined to bring S.T.E.M. education back home to Philadelphia after graduation. “I was stunned to see that no one here knew anything about S.T.E.M.” she says.
Undeterred, Aliyah set about to bring this novel educational tool to use here in the City. The summer after college, she started doing workshops at daycare centers where she could reach pre-school age students. “S.T.E.M. is a fantastic tool to teach kids in the 5-10 year age bracket where you can influence the development of their learning patterns” she tells me. Her workshops were so well received that she decided to form a 501(c)(3) non-profit to further her goal of teaching both kids and educators about S.T.E.M. Her non-profit, the STEMLand Science Foundation (www.stemlandscience.org) now raises money to promote S.T.E.M. principals and to provide S.T.E.M. education to kids for free through virtual workshops, in home demonstrations, summer camps and computer coding classes and an annual S.T.E.M. Day in July.
Aliyah is also bringing S.T.E.M. principals directly to her 5th grade science classroom at the Global Leadership Academy charter school in West Philly where she has been a teacher since 2019. “I’m helping them become more of a S.T.E.M. school” she explains, and her efforts are already helping bring much needed computer science grant money to the school.
Aliyah has big goals for her non-profit and for her career as a S.T.E.M. educator. “I have short-term and long-term goals” she explains. “In the short-term, I’d like to add a brick and mortar education facility – a STEMLand Academy – where we can run a pre-school, provide workshops and do community outreach” she says. “Long-term, I’d like to grow that facility into a full-fledged Pre-K-4 elementary school providing a S.T.E.M. curriculum to students in the West Philly area.”
Aliyah tells me that her love for S.T.E.M. education and her desire to provide free S.T.E.M. learning opportunities to kids in urban areas inspires her every day. She credits her family and the upbringing they gave her with making her into the person she is today. “My family gave me my love of education – everything I am doing now flows from that” she says.
When asked what success means to her, she tells me simply “hearing the kids I’m teaching or demonstrating for say ‘WOW!’ is really what does it for me. That is my purpose – I feel like that is why I am here.”