5 questions with… Leonard Gelfand STEM Center’s director of engineering Me’lani Joseph

Me'lani JosephWhen Me’lani Joseph was 11 years old, she and her mother lived in Tanzania near a village where many homes lacked running water and electricity. Though her home had those luxuries, she never forgot the experience of seeing others go without them.

“That really stuck with me as an 11-year-old,” she said. “I was going to be an international planner and developer, and I thought engineering would be my ticket.”

She hoped to someday improve irrigation and transportation systems in the developing world. As it turns out, engineering did become a key component of Joseph’s career—just not in the way she initially imagined.

Instead, Joseph, director of engineering at the Leonard Gelfand STEM Center, has the opportunity to bring two passions together: engineering and youth development.

“It was after I had my first kid that I realized I wanted to focus on young people,” she said. “Something in me just clicked that I wanted to focus on youth development.”

In her role with the center, she plans and develops programming to give young people access to new experiences in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

One opportunity for local students to gain exposure to STEM fields is TECHie Camps, a program hosted by Tech Corps, which aims to engage elementary and middle school kids in technology. Case Western Reserve University hosts the TECHie Camps for the third consecutive summer this year, with eight camps offered in programming and robotics.

The camps give students an introduction to technology and encourages them to take a break from consuming technology and, instead, produce it.

“It’s really fascinating to see the students come with their own ideas and then create something unique,” she said, remembering one story in particular in which one student who created a program with the sole purpose of annoying his sister.

Over the past three years, the program has grown at Case Western Reserve to allow for more opportunities for new students to get involved, and for some students to continue coming back each year. Joseph considers the opportunity for some to get involved in the program year after year crucial for their development.

“You just don’t know how [early experiences are] going to impact kids, but I do believe that starting early and having sustained engagement is important,” she said.

Because of her early experiences in life, Joseph realized that importance—so now she works daily to make sure young people in Cleveland have that opportunity.

Throughout the year, Joseph works to foster interest in STEM fields, with the Engineers Week Engineering Challenges Carnival and Girls Take Flight, a collaborative program with the Girl Scouts of Northeast Ohio and NASA where the girls have a chance to learn more about STEM fields.

Learn more about Joseph in this week’s 5 questions.

1. What technology do you think we should have, but don’t…yet?

As a working mom, one thing I would love is if I could have a machine where I could type in “I want spaghetti” and this machine would have the ingredients and the wherewithal to make the spaghetti for my dinner that night. You have these 3-D printers that you can send images; I want a machine that you can say what kind of food you want and it would prepare it for you.

2. What was the most challenging part of your education?

I went to MIT, so you would think that it was extremely hard, but it was doable. I think going to a place like that, you’re never quite prepared for the rigor and what it takes to be successful in an engineering program—getting used to the workload and getting organized [was the most challenging part of school].

3. What popular icon do you most identify with? Why?

Michelle Obama. She’s very self-confident, very sure of herself and very comfortable in her own skin. She has compassion for all people. I have the utmost respect for her and she is a great role model for all people.

4. If you could live in any other time period, which would it be?

As an African-American person, quite honestly, I would not want to live back in time. Even now, it’s not a great time to be an African-American in America. But if I [had to pick], I would say the Harlem Renaissance time because there were all these [amazing] authors and poets and musicians. It seemed very vibrant back then, with a lot of black pride and creativity. The African-American community and culture was celebrated in a way that we don’t see today.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

I think one of my favorite things is just seeing how the university embraces discovery and creativity. It’s really fascinating to me that there’s this really cool research that’s going on. I’m always intrigued by the new innovations that are taking place within the university.