I received an email in the Spring of 2017 telling me about the Teen Science Café Network and the desire to have a café in every state. There were none in Vermont and the email asked if I would be interested in starting one.What intrigued me most was that the teen science cafes were teen-led and had a strong youth leadership component. Even more, 4-H has three mission mandates – Science, Healthy Living and Civic Engagement – and it sounded like teen science cafes fit right into my wheelhouse. I am a Youth Leadership Specialist with the University of Vermont Extension 4-H Program and run our Teen & Leadership Programs – so any opportunity that engages youth in real-work, connects to our mission mandates, and builds skills excites me.
After attending a gathering for teen science café site coordinators in Dallas over the summer, I went back to Vermont and started to recruit for my teen leadership team. I got five motivated and talented young woman to apply and we got started in the Fall. They made lots of decisions – name of our café, logo, site location, day & time for café and, more importantly, they interviewed, selected and coached our first three café presenters. We were excited to get going! Our first café was scheduled for February 2018. This can be tricky in Vermont – would it be freezing out and no one would come? Would there be a snow storm and roads impassable? I told my team to try to each recruit 5 youth to attend – that way we might have 25 attendees. We thought that would be a successful turnout. But, much to our surprise, we had over 100 youth register to attend with 85 actually turning out for the café! Wow, we couldn’t believe it. Was this a fluke? Will we get the same turnout at every café? The answer was no – not that high – but still impressive. At almost every café we have averaged between 50-80 participants.
As we entered our second year, all but one of my teen leaders returned and we added six new leaders. The teens had expressed wanting to go deeper into the topics and we decided to offer follow-up workshops to cafes (if the presenter agreed). This was a nice addition to the cafés. For youth who really connected with a topic, they now had the opportunity to connect with the presenter in a smaller, more intimate setting. Most times this meant visiting their lab and doing some hands-on learning on-site there.
These follow up workshops got me thinking about how cool it would be to add programming over the summer – to showcase the amazing scientific field work that happens in Vermont. So in 2019 I created the Summer of Science program which included a week-long program, several half-day workshops, and an overnight weekend camp. This was not done with the teen leadership team but instead just through my work with 4-H. Youth could choose to do all of the progams or just those that interested them. Almost all sold out!
I have come to realize why teen science café programs work – they are a low barrier entry point for most youth. If they are interested in science, then they can come to see what it’s all about. There is no commitment other than being at the café for 2 hours. They are not obligated to come back unless they want to. This make trying it out really safe. So many do. Some come once and never come back, but many come over and over again. And, their parents express to me how excited they are to have this kind of programming. With such a dedicated group I wanted to create more opportunities to connect these youth to more science learning (e.g., Summer of Science). If we can create more pathways to learning about science, then it is a win for the youth and science education. These youth may never join a 4-H club but they are more than willing to come to a café, participate in Summer of Science, and more. The more I build off the teen science cafes, the more I can engage these youth. And, I have even had some come to other programs I offer through 4-H (e.g., VTeen Leadership Weekend, Youth Environmental Summit, TRY for the Environment).
Deciding to respond to that email I received back in the Spring of 2017 was the best decision I could have made. The teen science café and associated programs have now become my second largest program I run in 4-H. It has allowed me to connect to youth in Vermont that never would have connected with 4-H. And, more importantly, it clearly has filled a need for these youth looking to learn more about science and connect to scientists right here in Vermont.