Nearly 40 teenagers came together at a public library late on a Wednesday afternoon here last month to listen to a marine biologist talk about phytoplankton. These microscopic marine plants live suspended in water and can grow out of control, causing harmful algal blooms that form what is known as a red tide.
The setting was informal: As they snacked on pizza and soda, the students sat around large tables or stretched out on the floor while Jennifer Vreeland went through her scientific presentation.
These students were taking part in what’s known as a “teen science cafe,” one of a growing number of such events happening across the country.
Teen science cafes bring young people together with professional scientists outside of school to discuss newsworthy topics in the field. In many cases, the participants get a chance to do some sort of hands-on activity. The meetings are designed to be casual and fun. The teenagers also take charge of the events with the help of adult mentors.
“It’s empowering for kids to be able to ask questions and meet scientists,” said David Evans, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. “When you get that kind of engagement going, magic happens sometimes. It’s a lot closer to the real thing than what they might see in a classroom or out of a book.”
Science cafes for adults began in England in the 1990s and quickly spread across the world. These events are often held in bars, and while the beer and wine are flowing, participants have lively discussions with creative titles such as “SeaSI” and “Waiter, There’s a Carcinogen in My Soup.”
Broadening the Age Range
In 2007, the National Science Foundation provided a grant to Science Education Solutions, a New Mexico-based research and development company invested in promoting science and technology literacy, to see if the idea could be modified to work for teenagers, and Café Scientifique New Mexico was born. NSF provided funds to establish the Teen Science Café Network in 2012 to enable and encourage other organizations to develop their own teen science cafes. There are now more than 50 teen science cafes in operation around the country, and they’re located in 27 states.
The Florida Teen SciCafé Partnership was one of five founding members of the network. And the teen science cafe here in Sarasota is part of that partnership.
A team of teenage interns at the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium runs the cafes, assisted by alumni of the one-year program.
In Sarasota, the students listened as Vreeland covered several topics, including: her unusual background (she was a model before becoming a scientist); how her lab monitors red tides; the dangers of brevetoxins, which are neurotoxic substances found in red tide that can cause fish kills; and how drones are being used to collect water samples during inclement weather.
Afterward, there was a lively question-and-answer session, and the students had an opportunity to see phytoplankton under a microscope.
Vreeland said the teenagers in the audience really impressed her by how well they were able to follow her lecture.
“These kids are asking questions that I know at their age I would not even dream of thinking about,” she said. “They’re super talented.”
Sixteen-year-old Garrett Turner said Vreeland’s talk about phytoplankton was fascinating.
“Not many kids really know about the importance of this organism to the ecosystem or how its effects are widespread,” said Turner, who’s a junior at Cardinal Mooney High School in Sarasota.
Turner was a Mote intern last year, and this year he’s in the alumni program. He has attended several different teen science cafes and plans to study science when he goes to college.
‘Cool Line of Work’
“Going to these cafes makes me lean a little bit towards marine biology” as a possible major, said Turner. “Some of the professions of some of the speakers have been really interesting. It seemed like a cool line of work.”
Lauren France is a senior at Cardinal Mooney High School, who is also an alumna of the teen intern program.
“It’s really cool getting to work and speak with actual scientists,” said France.
The 17-year-old called her school science classes “awesome,” but said she prefers the informal lessons offered through the teen science cafes.
“It’s a lot of hands-on work,” said France of the cafes. “It’s more fun. It’s not just answer questions, do some homework. It’s very interactive. It’s a completely different setting than school, so I enjoy it much more.”
But not all of the teenagers in attendance plan to pursue a science-related career.
Mae Fahnestock is an 18-year-old senior at Sarasota High School who’s also in the teen intern alumni program.
She said she plans to major in international studies or cultural anthropology, but she expects that the skills she’s learned through the program will still help her down the line.
She helps to promote the program through social media and by spreading the word at her school, and she said the program taught her how to collaborate with other teens to achieve a common goal.
“I learned how to start from the bottom and build from that, and I think this is definitely a good life skill,” said Fahnestock.
Some science teachers in the Sarasota area also give their students extra credit for attending teen science cafés. The events are free and are open to any teenager in the community.