Spotlight on Bree Oatman

To start with, can you tell us in a nutshell about your Teen Café program? What’s special or unique about it?

STEM Savvy is unique because it is a rural program. South Dakota has less than a million people in the entire state and the nearest big city is over 6 hours away. The closest Target is 3 hours away and there is no Starbucks in our town. I would also say that our program is special because we had a group of teens totally willing to experiment with virtual content during the pandemic.

What’s your background… how did you come to be involved with your Teen Café program?

I’m a science educator with over 20 years of experience in the classroom and in informal learning environments. In May, 2020, I left a job as a high school science teacher to become the Education Director at the South Dakota Discovery Center. One of the projects I get to facilitate is our Teen Science Café program. I find it interesting because it provides an opportunity for youth to be leaders and for them to be involved in promoting STEM education as well as providing a creative platform for exploring STEM related careers.

What organization provides a home for your Teen Café program?  How do you see your program fitting with that organization’s mission?

The South Dakota Discovery Center is dedicated to providing hands-on science learning through our exhibit hall, classes for children and families, and resources for educators and youth program leaders in order to increase science literacy. Our mission is to empower all peoples of the Great Plains through hands-on experiences that inspire scientific thinking. STEM Savvy fits into our organization’s mission because it is a program that engages youth in career exploration and experiential learning related to understanding our world and universe.

What’s the biggest stumbling block you have encountered as your program has developed?

The greatest stumbling block is probably recruiting youth and then getting everyone to participate in meetings and events. The pandemic definitely made this process more complicated and I am new to the community. We switched to virtual meetings and it is still hard to find time that works for students. Many of our leaders are in sports, taking AP or dual credit classes, work, and do other extra-curricular activities. I am a little concerned because most of the youth leaders are Juniors or Seniors. I have an idea though for revamping the leadership team and recruiting new participants.

What has been your favorite Café? What made it so?

My favorite Café, was our most recent one. We invited someone who used to work for NASA Mission Control and now works for USGS EROS. We played a game of Among Us and had a live stream of the game. We took time between rounds and during the game to talk about the different systems on the ship and how they relate to real life and to ask Ryan questions about his career and life. This was the first time the youth really took ownership of the virtual platform and that was cool to see. A couple of the students want to just get together and play video games on Twitch and talk about science and put in a plug for STEM Savvy on a regular basis.

What do you like best about your program in general?

I like that it is a program for youth, led by youth.

 Do you have any advice for those just starting their own Teen Cafés? 

Be creative in how you identify youth leaders. Ask presenters to share a challenge they faced growing up that shaped who they are today and have them lead with that. We had a researcher using CRISPR to study the genetics of the virus that causes Covid-19 and he mentioned he was dyslexic at the end of the event and I was kicking myself wishing I had known that and wishing he had led with that. Youth need to hear adults talk about making mistakes, failures, and challenges.