Getting started with a Teen Science Café can be a lot of things: exciting, hectic, eye-opening, lots of work, and a growth experience. I’ve found myself continuously surprised by my own ability to act under pressure, by the team I’ve been fortunate to find, and most of all, by the energy and abilities of the teens involved.
My story begins on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River near St. Louis. I work as the Outreach Coordinator at the STEM Center of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE). I had had a little over a year’s experience creating and implementing in-school, after-school, and home-school community programs, teacher professional development, camps, and regional competitions. But through all of this, I had rarely had the opportunity to directly connect teens to scientists in an informal way. So when my director approached me with the idea of starting up Teen Science Cafes in our region, I replied with an emphatic “yes!”
In order to establish our “local area network” of host sites for our Cafes, early on we engaged two partners, the St. Louis Science Center, which I had visited and loved since childhood, and the Academy of Science-St. Louis, a well-known organization that has been connecting science with society for over 150 years. Both have access to a large network of teens.
My first step was to contact and meet with each site’s program leaders in person. At each meeting, we shared a little about each other, went over what Teen Science Cafe were meant to be, exchanged some ideas, and addressed questions. I got acquainted with awesomely enthusiastic people, each with a different background and skill set. An open approach to this was essential for establishing and meeting the program’s potential, allowing each person to contribute his/her own ideas, perspectives, and considerations.
It was interesting to find that each site held its own expectations of the program. Luckily, none of these seemed to conflict, so we easily combined them to create a strengthened and unified vision of what our Teen Science Cafe would look like—that ultimately it should be as student-led as possible, but that it should also offer some amazing opportunities to youth leaders, like lab and service experiences. We collaborated to establish timelines, develop marketing materials, create forms, and come up with short-term and long-term lists of scientists/topics. Before we knew it, we had administered applications and identified teens. We were ready for our first Youth Leadership Training. How we conducted this interesting process will be the subject of a future post.