Sometimes, one gets a rare opportunity to see an event from multiple sides. I have had such an opportunity with Teen Science Café, having served the St. Louis node both as a café speaker and an adult leader.
A little over a year ago, Sean Herberts, my colleague at the SIUE STEM Center asked me if I would like to come speak at a Teen Science Café. I said, sure, but what is a Teen Science Café? I knew it was a project that we were involved in, and I had heard of Café Scientifique and similar events, geared towards adult audiences. Sean explained that it was a similar concept, but run for and by teens!
Over the next couple of weeks, I got to meet the teen and adult leaders of the St. Louis node in preparation for my talks. Although I had a topic ready to talk about and an activity in mind, the Teen Café leaders helped greatly in planning how to do that activity and how we could get the teens involved with our online citizen science project, right there from the cafés.
The day for one of my talks came up, and two of the groups, the Academy of Science and Science Center, had combined to have on big event in the Science Center’s planetarium. Unfortunately, I was sick! Luckily my voice held out for the whole talk, but I wasn’t able to partake in the hands on activity, keeping my germy hands to myself. Nevertheless, the teen leaders had it all under control, and the café went off without a hitch. Thankfully, I was feeling better for my next event at Cahokia High School, and could help the students make messy craters with flour and cocoa powder myself!
A little while back, Sean left SIUE to go teach! He’s working on starting a new café node, and I have been able to work from the other side of the Teen Café experience here in St. Louis. In particular, I like helping to find a speaker each semester for our cafés. I can put myself in the shoes of the potential speaker since I was once in their shoes! For some, speaking to a general audience, particularly one of middle and high school students, can be rather nerve-wracking. Will I be interesting? Will the teens like my activity? We make a point to use local references on who is already a comfortable speaker, but there are certainly some useful tips to keep in mind when preparing a scientist to speak for Teen Café. Here are a few of mine:
- Be prepared to talk about yourself a bit. We like to start each café with a bit of an autobiography. This gives a human element to the science.
- Beware of jargon! There’s no need to oversimplify complex concepts. In fact, the teens enjoy an intellectual challenge. That means taking out unnecessarily complex language. Jargon is useful shorthand in professional situations, but it won’t help your audience and may turn them off.
- Tell a story. Narratives are an incredibly powerful tool for communication, despite the tendency of many STEM professionals towards a much more logical format. Embrace the story that your science tells!
- Engage! Some of the most fruitful moments come from one-on-one interactions between speakers and teens. Hands-on activities, discussions, and Q&A session before, during or after the main event help make these interactions possible. Be sure to plan for such time.
There are many, many resources for scientists and engineers to help them improve their communication skills. It is becoming more and more recognized by STEM professionals that positive engagement with lay audiences is beneficial for the health of the scientific enterprise. Chances are, your speaker already has their own style of delivery and interaction, but the ever important dry-run is a chance for adult leaders to direct the speaker towards working with your Teen Café audience in the best way possible.
Aliens among us! Or, more likely, the author (far left) with the teen leaders of the Cahokia High School Teen Science Café, October 2013. Photo CC BY-NC 4.0 Nicole Gugliucci