OAKLAND, Calif. - At 17, Oakland student Ahmed Muhammad has already accomplished a lot: He's a straight A student, a math and science whiz, and a fierce and valuable player on his high school basketball team. But in his words, "All I am I owe," and it’s a belief he’s used to model his life.
While juggling his own rigorous academic demands, the Oakland Technical High School senior has been working to help other young people in his community succeed with a goal of trying to even the playing field for students in the area of science.
Oakland Technical High School senior Ahmed Muhammad, 17, founded Kits Cubed. The non-profit seeks to put science kits in the hands of Oakland kids. (Ahmed Muhammad/kitscubed.com)
He’s been busy during the pandemic, using his extra stay-at-home time to launch a non-profit called Kits Cubed-- science kits and experiments geared for grade school students.
"I don’t think young kids' exposure to science is equally accessible," Muhammad told KTVU. "Learning science is currently a privilege, when it should be a fundamental piece of every child’s education," he explained.
The teen said it was actually his niece Ayla and nephew Ahmeer who inspired him to start the kits. "I always try to get them to use their minds whenever I’m with them," Muhammad said, adding one day during the shelter in place he tried to get them to work on science projects. "They both told me that they were bad at science, that they didn't like it," the teen said. "I couldn’t believe it, and I made sure to prove them wrong."
He created fun experiments for his niece and nephew, who ended up really enjoying the projects. And so Kits Cubed was born. "I wanted to share that with the community," Muhammad explained. "Someone/something was obviously discouraging Ahmeer and Ayla from believing they can be scientists (I’ve dealt with similar discouragement in school), so I founded Kits Cubed as a way to combat that."
Muhammad used all of the $200 he’s saved up to put together experiment sets and to create a website. He got the word out about his project on the neighborhood social networking site NextDoor, which allowed him to sell the first kits to his neighbors.
He has been selling the kits at $12 each. But with the primary goal of making the educational material accessible to all, they’re free to those who can’t pay. He’s also received donations and has been selling T-shirts to fund the project, with all of the money raised going directly toward Kits Cubed.
On the website, he promoted the kits as "A young scientist’s introduction to a lifelong love for learning."
The teen said that studying science provides opportunities to strengthen other areas as a learner. "I feel that an important skill that science develops is the ability to think critically about our world. Being able to ask a question about how something works, and then create an experiment to figure it out, is so powerful," he said, adding, "I also think that science embraces making mistakes. People are too afraid to make mistakes, to mess up. In science, you have to mess up in order to eventually become successful. Science teaches young kids that mistakes are simply a part of learning."
In creating the kits, Muhammad said he drew on what made science fun for him at a young age-- using simple and basic materials like rock candy, a potato battery, and a catapult, all found in his "Classic Science Bundle" set.
"As we all know, science can get pretty complicated; it’s easy to get lost in calculations and jargon." Muhammad explained. "It’s way cooler to use everyday materials to learn about science as opposed to using materials that we can’t even pronounce. I wanted to make these kits simple because then kids would actually be able to understand what they’re doing, and start to build a conceptual understanding of the scientific world around them."
If this high school student sounds like a seasoned educator, he’s certainly had a lot of exposure working with young students. Muhammad has spent a lot of time volunteering as a tutor to middle school and grade school kids. "Being able to work with them and create an environment that fosters learning is essential in bridging the educational gaps that exist within our community," he said.
It’s also given him an opportunity to give back. "I’ve been surrounded by mentors and role models for my whole life. I’ve had the special opportunity to grow up around a village of people who care about me," Muhammad said, as he offered a long list of those in his village, with mom and dad at the top of that list.
"My parents have always been by my side, and made it so clear to me that I can accomplish whatever goals I set my mind on. They’ve always made time for me, and made sure that no stone was left unturned in terms of discovering passions," Muhammad explained. "They tend to set the bar high, but they also are there to lift me up wherever and whenever I need it. I could talk about this for hours, and it still wouldn’t cover all they’ve done to love and encourage me," adding, "I love my parents so much."
He said that his parents didn’t attend college. His father, a retired fire captain spent 30 years with the Oakland Fire Department. His mother immigrated from Cambodia. His parents started a real estate business together and always demonstrated to their kids what it meant to find their passions and go after them.
So it was important to them to make sure they made available all of the resources to help him succeed, which included getting him a tutor when he needed extra support. "Being a role model for the younger generation is my way of giving back, and my way of inspiring them in the same way that I was inspired by those who are older than me," Muhammad explained. "I know how important it is as a little kid to have someone to look up to."
In fact, the kits he’s created actually helped connect him to a long-time role model he had followed from afar: Oakland Tech alumnus, Akintunde Ahmad, who went on to Yale with a 5.0 grade point average and received much attention when he appeared on the Ellen Show to announce his college pick.
KTVU featured Ahmad in a story in 2018 after he graduated from the Ivy League school. He has since gone on to receive his master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Muhammad was only in middle school when he heard about Ahmad, and after launching Kits Cubed, he decided to reach out to him on Instagram. That led to him finally being able to meet the figure he’d long looked up to and admired. It was also Ahmad who helped Muhammad donate dozens of his kits to Piedmont Avenue School in Oakland, where Ahmad’s mother has been principal.
Efforts to distribute the kits to local schools have since expanded, and on Tuesday, Muhammad shared with KTVU 100 boxed experiments ready to be delivered so kids at Oakland's Hoover Elementary can pick them up later in the week.
100 Kits Cubed science kits ready for distribution for students at Hoover Elementary School in Oakland. (Ahmed Muhammad)
Oakland Tech's assistant principal Martel Price told KTVU that just like his former student Akintunde Ahmad, there's no doubt Muhammad was also destined for great things. "The first time I spoke to him he asked about Akintunde Ahmad," Price said. "And that just was awesome for me as a Black male educator, to see that this was who he was looking up to as a model for his student path."
Price said besides Muhammad obviously being extremely accomplished as a student (He finished all of Oakland Tech’s math courses by his sophomore year and has taken multiple college-level courses.), Muhammad has proven his commitment to helping other students, even offering to tutor Price's own son. "He is supremely smart, yet humble and uber respectful of all that cross his path. He has always been willing to use his extra time to volunteer [to help] others."
That collaborative mindset and desire to lift up those around him have also translated well on the basketball court, according to Price. "I have told him that I think the basketball team plays better and smarter when he is out there and that’s just who he is as the point guard... makes sure to get all involved, run the plays that are desired, and will step up to the plate to make a play when needed."
Oakland Technical High School senior and point guard for the Bulldog's basketball team founded Kits Cubed, which offers science experiment kits to grade school-aged students. This photo from February 2020 shows Muhammad and the Bulldogs playing again (Tiffany Beckley)
Oakland Tech Bulldogs varsity coach Karega Hart could not agree more, calling him an incredible role model for student athletes. "What makes Ahmed so impressive is that he is an extremely high academic student and he can actually ball," the coach said of the teen who has been on the varsity team since his sophomore year. "Ahmed displays the discipline and determination to become a successful at whatever he wants to do in life."
Hart also commended the teen for his positive attitude and drive, describing him as hard-working and one to lead by example both on and off the court. "Ahmed is about action first," Hart said and added that Muhammad gives it his all no matter what, be it diving after a loose ball or stepping up to help tutor a teammate in math.
For Muhammad, whether it’s on the basketball court or in the classroom, he said he’s driven and inspired by the fact that he might serve as a role model to kids, as Ahmad and others had done for him.
"Knowing that I have younger kids looking up to me is motivation to be the best person I can be, both as a student and an athlete," Muhammad explained. "If they can see me excel in the classroom, then they’ll have no doubt that they can do the same, if not more."
It’s not without hard work that this student has accomplished so much. There were challenges along the way, none that didn’t push him to work harder.
There was that time he took a general chemistry class at Stanford University his sophomore year. "I didn’t have any prior chemistry background (although it was recommended), but I studied and studied, and actually left campus with an A+ on my transcript. I earned these accomplishments with pure effort."
That's a lesson he hoped to impart on the young people he’s worked with in the community. "I aim to inspire kids with similar backgrounds that, regardless of family education or other societal labels, we should foster the brilliance that exists within all of us," adding, "I want my niece and nephew to see their Uncle Ahmed as a reason for why they can succeed, instead of giving them a reason for why they can’t."
The new school year began last week, albeit an unprecedented one amid the pandemic. As Muhammad embarked on this last year of high school, his list of to-dos was long.
In the immediate future, he’s got great plans for Kits Cubed. He said he wants to get his learning kits in the hands of every young scientist in Oakland, and true to his character, he’s optimistic it will happen. "It will require a lot of hard work, but with the strong community that our city has, I have no doubt that we can accomplish this."
He would also like to expand the non-profit to help kids in other ways, including offering tutoring services, mentorship programs, summer camps, and field trips.
Despite the restrictions brought on by the pandemic, Muhammad was also hopeful for another chance to get on the court with his basketball team. "I’d do anything for one last run with my teammates. We’re so ready for a chance to go all the way to State," he said, and added he’d also hoped to play basketball on the college level.
Academically, the sky’s the limit for this teen. He's currently working on applications, with the hopes of attending Stanford. He’s considering a major in engineering and wants to study math and computer science as a possible double major.
With a weighted 4.62 grade point average, he’s on track to accomplish another goal as a member of Oakland Technical High School’s Class of 2021. "If I can maintain my grades," he said, "I have a real shot at being my school’s valedictorian. That is a huge academic goal of mine."
For those who have mentored him and watched him achieve so much, there was little doubt this teen from Oakland would represent his community in great ways. "I have told him I am looking forward to watching him play at Stanford or wherever he desires to go," said Price. "He will be the next young male that a new young Black male student walks up to me and say, ‘Did you know Ahmed Muhammad? What was he like?’ And I will gladly share in hopes of watching that one become like Ahmed and Tunde as well!"
It's something that Muhammad wants too. "As I continue chasing my dreams, I hope to inspire the next generation, just as what was done for me," he said. "I would like the success stories of Black youth from Oakland to be something that we see all the time."