An Oakland High School Senior Brings Science Experiments to the People

Ahmed Muhammad hands out Kits Cubed science kits to Hoover Elementary School students. (Ahmed Muhammad)

“We learned all about the science behind airplanes and catapults and stuff. They had all these different hands-on experiments and projects that we built, and team building activities,” Ahmed Muhammad describes. “I still remember that, and I still remember all those experiments… that was my introduction to science, and I just kept with it ever since.”

He’s talking about the Summer Engineering Experience for Kids (SEEK), a West Oakland summer program organized by the National Society of Black Engineers that he attended as a second grader. It sparked a life-long passion for science, and instilled in him the importance of early education: “It’s hard to like science when you grew up hating it.”

Now, Muhammad is a senior at Oakland Technical High School, a straight-A student and the point guard of Oakland Tech’s varsity basketball team. He’s also the founder of Kits Cubed, a nonprofit he started while under California’s shelter-in-place order earlier this year. It aims to provide science kits and experiments to elementary and middle school students.

The inspiration for Kits Cubed came when he was babysitting his younger niece and nephew, Ayla and Ahmeer, and decided to take a break from their usual activities. “I finally felt that they were old enough for us to do some science experiments,” Muhammad explains. “And they were like, ‘No, I hate science. I'm bad at it.’” Their reactions stunned him: “Ahmeer literally loves everything, but then when I brought up science to him, he didn't like it, but he didn't even know what it was.”

Determined to change their impressions, Muhammad designed some science experiments for them, and Kits Cubed was born. He created a website, put together his savings to produce the first few experiment sets and sold his earliest science kits to his neighbors. A few months later, he has established an office space for kit assembly, hired a team of fellow Oakland students and distributed a total of 1300 science kits in Oakland and beyond.

Ahmed Muhammad delivers science kits to Alameda County EMS Corps' teen program. (Ahmed Muhammad)

The kits are available for online purchase for $15, and each includes three experiments, hence the name Kits Cubed. One set features a lima bean plant maze, a kaleidoscope and a pop-rocket; another explores physics and chemistry with a catapult, potato battery and rock candy; and the newest set includes a telegraph, an electric motor and an electromagnet. Proceeds from online purchases and T-shirt sales, as well as donations, allow Kits Cubed to offer free kits to schools and students who can’t afford to pay.

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Accessibility is particularly important to Muhammad. As Oakland Unified School District is projected to continue distance learning for the remainder of this school year, he is cognizant of the inequities of online education.

“Because of circumstances completely out of their control, kids are going to be left behind,” Muhammad laments. “And so the advantaged become more advantaged, and the disadvantaged become even more disadvantaged.” He’s partnered with principals, teachers and parents to bring hundreds of kits to students in Oakland public schools, including Fruitvale’s Life Academy of Health and Bioscience, in the hopes that “Kits Cubed can be part of bridging that gap.”

Rebecca Fulop is an 8th grade science teacher at Life Academy and a parent of a 6-year-old student at Crocker Highlands Elementary. She heard about Kits Cubed from a school newsletter late last spring. Over the summer, she and her daughter Callie used Kits Cubed’s original experiment set as part of a weekly Zoom science class with her kindergarten classmates, creating mini-lessons around each one. “Callie and the rest of the kids—and their families—loved the activities,” Fulop emphasizes. “Watching the lima beans grow quickly sparked lots of excitement and discussion around plant growth, the kaleidoscopes were surprisingly beautiful given the simplicity of the materials and the kids got really into testing different variables with the rockets… When we used the rocket activity, we watched some space launches together first, and when we did the lima bean activity we discussed what plants need in order to grow.”

Ahmed Muhammad with a happy Kits Cubed customer. (Ahmed Muhammad)

This fall, Fulop ordered more kits for what she calls “Back Yard School,” a socially distanced pod of six Crocker Elementary families that she began teaching to support their online curriculum: “Again, a big hit.” Fulop also ordered 200 more Kits Cubed combo sets for Life Academy’s advisory classes, and plans to order more soon for her lessons on electricity and magnetism.

“I can't say enough good things about working with Ahmed,” she says. “He is highly professional and efficient… our turnaround time on the 200 kits we recently ordered for Life Academy was incredibly tight.”

“We're working tirelessly just to make sure our students have consistent access to internet… there is nothing equitable about how we educate Black and Brown children in OUSD,” says Patrick Messac, another teacher at Life Academy. “Disembodied classrooms can really sap the joy from learning.” But after using KitsCubed for the first time, he “heard gasps of surprise and excitement” from his students.

“Simple things, like annotating a text, are difficult in a virtual world… it was important for me to do something real and hands-on with my students,” fellow Life Academy teacher Christi Grossman adds. “Ahmed was a joy to work with.”

The future is bright for both Muhammad and Kits Cubed. He plans to be the first in his immediate family to attend college, and is currently in the midst of application season. Most recently, Kits Cubed designed a new human anatomy kit, and piloted it with the Alameda County EMS Corps to teach underrepresented teens about the respiratory system on their way to entering the medical field.

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This Halloween, Kits Cubed is holding a socially distanced donation event at Korematsu Discovery Academy, where they will donate science kits and onetab Learning Tablets to all 250 students. Eventually, Muhammad hopes to expand the services offered beyond STEM. “I definitely want to reach into the humanities side because, yes, scientists are important, but so are lawyers and politicians and writers,” he says. “Honestly, just trying to tap into kids’ potentials in as many ways as possible is our next big step.”