A World of Possibilities

Founded at Vashon High School, Show Me the World Project provides transformative education in entrepreneurship, leadership, and STEM to students in under-resourced communities in St. Louis.

Work

Story By Heather Riske
Visuals By R.J. Hartbeck

On a chilly Monday afternoon at Vashon High School in north St. Louis, sunlight streams through the windows in Lauren Bower’s classroom as a group of students take turns sharing the answers they’ve come up with for today’s warmup. Inspired by a recent TikTok trend, they’ve been asked to reflect on their experiences as leaders in Show Me the World Project, an international learning experience rooted in STEM and entrepreneurship.

“Of course I get donations with a good pitch,” one student responds with conviction. “Of course I know the difference between light, medium, and dark roast coffee,” another says confidently. “Of course I set a good example for my peers,” yet another student says with pride.

They’re here after school today for an e-commerce workshop, in which they’ll learn how to process orders and package, seal, and label bags of coffee to then ship to customers. But as they proudly share their accomplishments with one another, it’s clear that Show Me the World Project is teaching them much more.

Pictured from left to right, top to bottom: Show Me the World Project co-founder Samantha Lurie snaps a photo of students hard at work; fellow co-founder Sylvester Chisom teaches a lesson in e-commerce to the students; a student holds a box of coffee orders ready for shipping; student Calen Smith holds bags of coffee beans ready for packaging.

Show Me the World Project dates back to 2012, when Samantha Lurie was in her fifth year of teaching biology at Vashon and participated in a school swap at Clayton High School with a small group of students who switched schools for the day. The experience sparked big conversations around educational equity, as her students saw a huge gap in the opportunities and resources afforded to them at Vashon compared to students at Clayton. They wanted better textbooks and more electives, but most importantly, they wanted to travel abroad.

“I thought, ‘Wow, what great advocacy, but I have no idea how we’re going to fundraise all this money,’” Lurie remembers.

The group set their sights on a trip to Costa Rica to align with the school’s biology curriculum, which would also be accompanied by engaging lessons in STEM, culture, and leadership. In order to raise enough funds to support the trip, the Vashon community banded together, hosting car washes and Chipotle fundraisers and working the concession stands at St. Louis Rams games. Eventually, they were able to fund the trip — but Lurie realized she had a much bigger opportunity on her hands.

Student Jiarra Whittier talks with Show Me the World Project alum, mentor, and social media manager Sep’Tisha Riley.

Lurie likes to say that the Show Me the World Project — originally known as the Show Me Costa Rica Project — was founded when an educator, a scientist, and an entrepreneur came together to pursue the vision that the collective community imagined and defined. With the help of co-founders Boahemaa Adu-Oppong, the director of data science and computational biology at Arana Biosciences, and Sylvester Chisom, the CEO and founder of Global CTE Learning, Lurie has been able to refine the program, expand its education in STEM and entrepreneurship, and make it accessible to many more students in under-resourced communities across the St. Louis area. In May 2019, the project was incorporated as a 501c3 non-profit organization, at which time it was also renamed to reflect its expansion to other countries such as Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Panama. 

The Show Me the World Project consists of much more than just a trip abroad, incorporating a robust 18-month curriculum of engaging, hands-on lessons in STEM, culture, leadership, finance, and entrepreneurship. In addition to weekly skill-based workshops connected to those core competencies, students are able to learn outside the classroom, touring the Missouri Botanical Garden and visiting local coffee roasting facilities. 

Adu-Oppong developed the program’s STEM curriculum, leveraging existing modules she helped develop for Washington University in St. Louis’ Young Scientist Program while a PhD student and tailoring them to the Show Me the World Project. She developed a set curriculum and continues to work closely with teachers at participating high schools to execute the STEM lessons, which are housed across several modules that also incorporate education pertaining to global competency, cultural awareness, entrepreneurship, and leadership.

Pictured from left to right, top to bottom: On a sunny day in January, student participants in Show Me the World Project walk through four steps to packaging coffee, from order processing and packaging preparation to boxing up orders and personalization and final touches.

To kick off the project, students start by learning about the ecosystem, food web, and native animals and plant species of the country they’ll be visiting at the end of the year, such as Costa Rica or Ecuador. The lessons are hands-on and interactive, incorporating games and materials from cork boards and rubber bands to bowls of Skittles to teach students about topics such as competition, mutualism, consumers, and producers. By weaving in key themes, the STEM lessons also tie closely to the other pillars of the program, such as entrepreneurship.

In the “Presenting Your Authentic Self” module, for instance, students learn critical entrepreneurship and leadership lessons about refining sales techniques and giving speeches and presentations. On the STEM side, they learn more about who they are as individuals in terms of their own DNA and genetic traits by using genetic taste testing strips. In the next lesson, they learn even more about DNA by mashing down strawberries to extract their DNA. 

In one of the final modules, Adu-Oppong brings in a panel of science experts from across the field, such as a professor or biological technician, to show students the range of career paths in science. She believes it’s critical for scientists to give back to the community by encouraging and empowering young people to get involved in the STEM pipeline.

“I think the misconception about being in science is that you have to be an A+ student to do really well in that space,” she says. “That story needs to be told more for the younger generation to understand that you don’t have to be this perfect person in order to get into the science field and to have these leadership positions. To be in a science leadership position takes way more than just getting an A+ in a class; it’s definitely about those softer skills as well. Maybe they’re not super strong at math, but they’re really good at problem-solving, and that allows them to know that there’s still this path they can take into science. The exposure for the students to see someone like me and know that that is a career path they can go down is so important.”

Vashon High School Biology teacher Tylar Searcy works with students in the Show Me the World Project.

Students also get hands-on experience in entrepreneurship working in the project’s specialty coffee program, which features single-origin beans from Colombia, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Peru. The light, medium, and dark roast coffees are available to purchase on the Show Me the World website and at Fresh Thyme Market locations, and students also sell them in person each Saturday at the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market. The coffee program serves as a fundraising tool to support the trips abroad and make them accessible to more students while also offering an unparalleled learning experience. 

“Our students are involved in all aspects of it, from e-commerce to the branding, the packaging, the marketing, even the logo design,” Chisom says. “Students are not only becoming first-time world travelers, but they’re learning the skills that our future workforce is looking for. They’re learning durable skills like communication, collaboration, teamwork. We’re giving them that leg up. It’s not just a trip; it’s one of the best interdisciplinary educational experiences and it’s just so life-changing. You connect STEM education to entrepreneurship to leadership to global competency, and all of it is really lifting our students with the forward-thinking process of upward economic mobility.”

Coffee sales have helped to significantly expand the reach of the Show Me the World Project — after the coffee program was launched in the 2016-2017 school year, the group was able to take 28 students abroad, up from 10. Eventually, the founders hope to get to a point where coffee sales can fully support the project’s programming, but they currently rely heavily on support from the community. Many donors, big and small, keep the project running, and in 2023, the founders received a $50,000 Food City grant from the Serving Our Communities foundation.

Over more than a decade, the project has had a transformational impact on students, with the majority reporting a greater sense of independence and understanding of other cultures. Within the first two years of the project, participating students increased their GPAs by 50 percent, and 90 percent scored proficient or advanced on the biology state exam, compared to 7 percent of the total school population. More students are matriculating through college and studying abroad, too, with many going on to a career in science or starting their own businesses.

Pictured from left to right, top to bottom: Student Angel Bonds practices writing a thank you letter to a customer; program guidelines promoting kindness and respect are posted in the classroom; co-founder Sylvester Chisom works with students boxing up coffee orders.

“To look back and see how far this project has come because of the students who — no matter what the circumstances were, showed up every day, innovated every day and dedicated their time to this vision that they had for their lives — it’s hard to even wrap your mind around,” Lurie says. “There’s no greater reward as an educator than to see the growth of a student when they’re younger and now see them in adulthood leading. It brings the purpose, the innovation, the creativity, and it shows the possibilities of what we can do and accomplish together when we put student voices first. When we listen to our students and collaborate with the community and stakeholders, it really shows what is possible for our youth and the future of education.”

The program doesn’t necessarily end with the trip, either. The Show Me the World team keeps in close contact with former students, helping them navigate through college and their careers and connecting them with key resources and mentorship opportunities. Many alumni return to lend their time to the program, interacting with students and accompanying them on trips abroad.

“The trickle down, all the students coming back and helping out with it, has been the most rewarding part of it,” Adu-Oppong says. “It’s one thing to have the students be part of our project, but to have them say this was super impactful, come back and actually help in the way that they do, I think it’s just the cherry on top.”

Sep’Tisha Riley, who was part of the first cohort of students to travel to Costa Rica back in 2012, has continued to stay involved with the project over a decade later, mentoring students and accompanying them on trips and also running the project’s social media outlets and newsletters. As a math interventionist and teacher, she feels working with the students has made her a better educator and shown her the importance of building relationships with students to empower and embolden them. She’s also witnessed firsthand the transformational impact that the program has on those students. 

A student holds a bag of hand-packed Show Me the World Project coffee beans.

“I wanted to stay involved with it because I have seen it work,” Riley says. “I’ve seen not only myself but others gain confidence and go beyond our means. For most people who are in the group, it was the first of many trips that we’ve taken in our own personal lives. I’ve seen it inspire people to get into new educational fields that they probably didn’t have any interest in — not many people probably wanted to go into science before being a part of the program. Some of the current students never thought they wanted to go into entrepreneurship, but they’re thinking about it now.”

As word of its impact spreads, the Show Me the World Project has seen interest from many other schools, previously partnering with Carnahan High School of the Future, Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, Gateway STEM High School, and Riverview Gardens High School to bring the project into even more classrooms. Currently, the project works with students at Vashon, Soldan High School, and University City High School, with even more partnerships on the horizon. 

“We’ve been around for a while now, so people have heard about the program, and it’s like, ‘Wow, how do we get something like that in our district?’” Chisom says. “There’s an excitement around it and we hope to reach more students and more schools as we continue to grow. That really is our mission — to unlock that travel component, to help expand the worldview, and prepare more students with these unique experiential learning opportunities so that they can find themselves in the world and build that confidence to know that the world has so much to offer them and they deserve every piece of it.”

Show Me the World Project co-founders Samantha Lurie and Sylvester Chisom.

Join the Story

  • Keep up with Show Me the World Project’s latest news and purchase coffee and other merchandise on its website.
  • Connect with the program on Facebook and Instagram.
  • Support the program by making a donation.