Teen Ownership of the Cafés!

Getting Started in the Gateway Café #2

It’s all about teen ownership of the Teen Science Cafés. As adult leaders, my colleagues and I wanted to engage teens in every aspect of the program, from choosing topics and creating café themes to developing the culture of the overall program. We had to ask ourselves the question: “where do we begin?” It became very clear to us that our vision of the role of these teens and the form of the Café programming would take shape in our first interaction with them: in the Youth Leadership Team (YLT) training.

As with many great activities, lessons, and educational programs, the first step for new development involves finding an effective model to modify and build upon. We developed the youth leadership retreat agenda based on examples from the Café Scientifique New Mexico. We are implementing the program in three sites with three youth leadership teams, so we wanted to design the training to take advantage of opportunities that were unique to each. Thus, the agenda differed slightly for each site, respecting and positively playing on their strengths and differences. However, we agreed that certain training elements should remain consistent across sites, such as teen ownership, leading discussions with questions more than statements, and our Youth Leadership training approach.

In the beginning of the training, we had teens think about the culture of the cafés. Rather than telling them how the program would run, we gave them the freedom to discuss what they thought it should look like. We literally had them close their eyes and envision what they pictured as the perfect teen café. After recording and sharing these images, the teens collaborated to develop a unified vision. They worked in groups to generate lists of responsibilities/tasks that would need to be accomplished for their vision to be actualized then, determined how to divide these responsibilities among the team. The division of work was different for each site. For instance, adult leaders at one of our sites did this by offering pre-made committees that teens could sign up for; another had the teens propose their own committees and their charge based on the identified YLT responsibilities; yet another had teens forgo committees altogether and sign up for individual responsibilities.

Thumbs up fpr a great Cafe!

Thumbs up for a great Cafe!

After creating a vision and determining how to reach it, we asked each teen to fill out a brief Survey of STEM Cafe Topics. The list was generated by the adult leaders at the three sites identifying known high quality presenters, and based on their areas of expertise, drafting potential titles ranging from “Zombies: Surviving Infectious Disease Disasters” to “Super Lasers”. The surveys asked teens to rate each topic using a Likert scale and to identify their top five favorite topics. Since the training, we have used this data to compare the interests of each site, note trends, and make decisions about recruiting future presenters.

We then engaged each team with a “scientist simulation” in which a scientist studying comet formation and composition was coming to speak. They were given an imaginary budget and 15-20 minutes to pull together all of the details for a café, including responsibilities before, during, and after the café.

The responses from the teens were inspiring! They came up with ideas for flyers, Facebook posts, free food (applying for donations from a local bakery/sandwich shop), themed dishes, decorations, models, door prizes, and more. They had imagined details that I hadn’t even considered. Submarine sandwiches had chunks removed with a small ice cream scoop to resemble a cratered surface, star projectors threw tiny lights up on the ceiling, blue lighting was used to make the room feel “cool like outer space,” and fog machines were borrowed from family members. This is when I realized what these youth—young adults, really—were capable of, and how amazingly big the Teen Science Cafés would really become.

We hoped that training would allow our youth leaders to envision what the Teen Science Cafés would become, but it ended up doing so much more than that. In one night, the teens bonded, established their identity within the program, and took complete ownership. The teens left with a dream; I left in awe of it.

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