Publication: Teen Science Cafés: A Gateway to STEM Literacy and Exploring STEM Careers Publication

By  Michelle K. Hall and Michael A. Mayhew  

PUBLISHED in Informal Learning Review, Jul-Aug 2017, p. 24-27. 

Teen Science Cafés are a relatively new and unique format for public engagement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) across the United States. The concept of teen science cafés arose from the adult science café model, which took off like wildfire in the early to mid-2000s all around the world. Adult science cafés are lively events that take place in casual settings such as pubs, restaurants, and coffeehouses. They are open to everyone and feature an engaging conversation with a scientist and among the audience about a particular topic in STEM.

Topics can range from deep and serious, such as considering gene editing in embryos, to fun and playful, such as the science of cheese making. A single person typically organizes adult programs. The organizer chooses the topic and presenter and advertises the event using social media, email, or a website. The venue has food and drink for the adults to purchase, and the crowd shows up. It is a pretty simple and straightforward model. Prior to starting the Teen Science Café Network, we had a hunch that we could devise a modification of the science café model that would appeal to teens.

MOTIVATION FOR TEEN SCIENCE CAFÉS: MEETING A REAL STEM EXPERT

It is increasingly difficult to identify anything that is not touched by science, technology, and innovation in our lives. They are key drivers of our economy and quality of life, continuously changing our society. For teens, this rapid innovation challenges them in making decisions about their future and a career pathway. Yet, for most teens, opportunities to meet experts in STEM fields, and to learn how those experts found their way to career success, are few.

A part of the problem is that there just aren’t that many STEM professionals in the workforce. In 2015, STEM professionals comprised just 6.2% of the U.S. workforce (Fayer et. al, 2015), making the likelihood of meeting one rather small. Even teens living in areas of high STEM employment can struggle to meet scientists and engineers in their own backyard. For example, we were recently approached by two teens living in the heart of Silicon Valley with the idea of starting a club, so that they could connect with the science and tech wizards working at the firms and universities surrounding them and learn about their research and STEM careers.

When first conceiving the teen science café concept, we conducted focus groups with teens to determine whether they were interested in the idea and what would make them attend such a program. Universally, teens wanted to meet a “real” scientist, technologist, engineer, or mathematician. This response held true for teens who had parents in STEM fields as well as for those who did not. Thus, success of a teen science café hangs not so much on the specific topic as on the capacity of an expert to tell an interesting and multidimensional story of both their life as a scientist and the relevance of their work.

DEVELOPMENT OF THE TEEN SCIENCE CAFE MODEL

In 2007, with a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation, we began an experiment to test if the model of adult science cafés could be adapted to appeal to high school teens. In developing the model for teen science cafés, we conducted many focus groups with teens to determine what would entice a teen to lead or attend a science café event and what would make them stay away. We learned:

  • Teens desire opportunities to develop and express independent thought. They expressed a strong desire to learn about topics in the news, to hear other people’s opinions and perspectives (especially opinions of their peers), and to make up their own mind about an issue.
  • Teens desire mentors and friendships. They want to meet STEM experts and learn about their current research. They want help finding mentors for school projects and career information. They liked the idea of social gatherings and connections with peers from other schools and towns.
  • Teens are interested in a wide range of science topics. Presented with potential Café topics in the focus groups, teens often engaged in short Café-like discussions, demonstrating that their interest and passion can drive vibrant conversations.
  • While interested in learning more about challenging issues, teens expressed frustration in hearing about problems; they prefer to talk about potential solutions.
  • Travel to meetings is an obstacle to participation. Teen programs have to be located within their community at central locations that are easily accessible.

The program, Café Scientifique New Mexico (CafeNM.org), has proven highly popular with teens in four towns of diverse character in northern New Mexico for the same reason as adult programs: the blend of engagement with scientists informally on interesting science topics and the high degree of social interaction. Café Scientifique New Mexico has provided teens a new perspective on the nature of science and a picture of scientists as real people leading interesting lives. The program has proven to be a rich—and fun—complement to the science they learn in the classroom.

Based on our results in New Mexico, we received a new NSF grant in 2012 to create the Teen Science Café Network (TeenScienceCafe.org). The goal is to develop a community of practice to support other individuals and organizations start their own versions of the Teen Science Café model, adapted to their local institutions and demographics. Evaluation of programs implemented by our initial Network partners in four other states demonstrated very similar levels and types of impact on teens’ interests, attitudes, and motivations for attending Teen Science Café programs. Since the national program was initiated, the Network has grown rapidly. To date, more than 80 member organizations around the United States have joined the Network and created their own versions of Teen Science Café programs based on the model. These Network sites are located in over 40 states across the country.

CORE DESIGN PRINCIPLES FOR TEEN SCIENCE CAFÉS

Over the ten years of operation, the teen Café Scientifique New Mexico model has been refined based on evaluation and practice (Hall et al., 2010). Fundamental to the model are the six Core Design Principles as they establish Teen Science Cafés as a unique addition to informal/out of school programming for teens.

Out of our early experimentation with teen science café programs and rigorous evaluation of the model and impacts on teens during the past ten years of implementation, came our Core Design Principles, which we continue to update:

  1. Cafés must be highly engaging and interactive. Cafés are structured to promote lively conversation and interaction among teens and the presenter; a Café program is not a lecture.
  2. Teens must have a sense of ownership of and opportunities for leadership in their Café program. Teen Leadership Teams are responsible for all aspects of their program, with adult leaders providing support in the background.
  3. Café programs seek to attract teens with diverse motivations for learning about science. Diversity includes ethnicity, culture, and gender, but also motivations to learning about science. Teen Cafés are not just for the science geeks; they are for all curious teens.
  4. Presenters are carefully vetted and formally trained to communicate effectively with the teen audience. Focusing on storytelling, the big ideas, why it matters, and how it will change our world—supported by a few key, jargon-free graphics—is of the essence.
  5. Café programs actively cultivate strong community relationships. Building relationships with scientific and teen-serving organizations can increase participation of both teens and scientists, and support community awareness and sustainability of your Café program.
  6. Each Café site has one or more adult leaders who are committed to the program. The adult leaders have the energy and dedication to organize and support the work of teen leaders.

All members of the Network agree to abide by the Principles, yet the resulting teen café programs can take a wide variety of highly innovative forms consistent with the Principles. Each of the Principles plays a critical role in ensuring a sustainable and vibrant café program. The teen science café model is simple, free to implement, and supported by a network of colleagues who share a passion for teen science cafés.

TEEN SCIENCE CAFÉS ARE UNIQUE

Teen Science Cafés differ in several ways from the adult programs, due to the teen audience’s needs and interests.

Teens lead their own programs via Teen Leadership Teams at each site. This enables teams to not only learn about STEM but also to gain skills that allow them to take charge of their own learning. We found that while they were excited by the idea of leadership, they also were initially skeptical. Past experiences with adults led them to believe that adults don’t know how to let go of the reins. This is the biggest challenge for adult leaders: guiding and supporting, without directing and controlling. Adult leaders have to know that teen science café events are not perfect in their implementation, and for teens, learning from experience is a part of life.

Thus within the Network, the teen café programs are led by teens, for teens, with support from an adult that is committed to mentoring and developing the teen leaders. They are community based to reduce transportation concerns and allow for teens to gather with their peers in a welcoming and known space, such as a library, college, coffee house, or museum. They are free, open to all interested teens, and incorporate active learning beyond the conversations.

A typical teen science café event starts with refreshments, socializing, and an icebreaker to create a welcoming environment. An introduction of the presenter by a teen leader starts the formal program. The presenter tells a short (15- 20-minute) science story that sets the stage for a wide-ranging conversation exploring the given topic. We encourage presenters to intersperse questions to the audience early in their presentation, as that signals to the teens that conversation is desired. For the presenter, dialog back and forth with the teens during the presentation gives them a sense of what the teens understand and what they are most interested in learning. The presentation and conversation is typically followed by some type of active learning.

For a café on flocking of birds at a museum, the presenter arranged for the museum director to dress as a gorilla and to then chase the teens around the museum. With a video camera overhead, the teens were shown that when frightened they too flock like birds to protect themselves. In another café program, a medical investigator brought three human skeletons and a victim list of twelve; teens learned to determine the age, gender and potential cause of death from the skeleton, then they matched each skeleton to a victim on the list. Teens have learned how to create a hologram, design laser-guided systems, engage in “White Hat” computer hacking, and build robots.

The topics for teen cafés and the kinds of hands on activities vary from elaborate to the most simple. The point of the active learning is to get teens talking and critically thinking about ideas and interacting with the expert.

By making programs simple to organize and community based, we have been able to reach many underserved communities both rural and urban. Nearly 25% of our adult leaders and teens served are people of color. Our success is due to keeping the programs local. The biggest perceived obstacle to teen cafés in these communities is not funding; rather it is the perception that a STEM expert must be a professor or have an advanced college degree. Yet teen science café presenters can range from first responders, architects, chefs, bankers and financers, tinkerers, and origami experts, to medical professionals, psychologists, farmers, and cyber security specialists. All have an interesting story about their pathway into STEM and their passion for their work. Whether a technician or Ph.D. researcher, each can open the minds of teens to their future potential and pathway.

Working with a teen audience in an informal venue is a unique experience for most STEM experts and can be somewhat intimidating. There is no teacher to moderate and teens’ interests can be somewhat unpredictable. To ensure our presenters are tuned in to the interests and level of knowledge about the café topic, our teen science café programs require a dry run with the presenter prior to their event. While most experts feel they do not need this step, our evaluation (Sickler and Cherry, 2017) shows that most all presenters who did a dry run and got direct feedback from teen leaders felt that the dry run was critical to their success in connecting with the teens (Sickler and Cherry, 2017).

During the dry run, presenters can also go through the hands-on activity they have planned earlier in the preparation process with the help of the adult leader. The scientist can prepare the teen leaders to help other teens at the café event, should that be needed.

IMPACTS ON TEENS AND STEM EXPERTS

Our evaluation (Hall, et al, 2010) shows that the Café program positively influenced participants’ attitudes toward science on all 11 survey items, including interest in science and science careers and knowledge of scientists’ work. 71% of respondents agree that the Café changed their view of the importance of science to their lives. It positively influenced their self-efficacy and cognitive competence towards science, including understanding of the nature of scientific research, understanding of science issues in the news, ability to use facts to support scientific points of view, and considering multiple sides of an issue.

There has also been significant benefit to the presenters, who have uniformly considered their participation in the Café program to be enjoyable and of personal benefit. One of the most interesting benefits expressed by some was a recognition that effectively communicating their science has fed back into their thinking about their own research. This testimonial, from a survey of presenters (22 of 35 responded), is typical:

“I found the Café experience very helpful, as it forced me to focus on the really basic elements of my research and how to communicate them. This is a skill that is important not only for engaging with the community, but also for engaging with decision-makers and funding agencies. Since I am a social scientist and my presentation included an exercise asking students to evaluate the resilience of their own communities to disasters, I gained useful information… on the resilience of New Mexico communities. This helped me think more clearly about my own research.”

We are currently engaged in a Network-wide study of Café presenters to understand the full impact teen science cafés may have on them.

SUPPORT OF A NETWORK AND COMMUNITY OF PRACTICE

We encourage any organization that wishes to form a Teen Science Café program to request membership in the network. You will be warmly welcomed and strongly supported with mentoring, free resources, and training workshops.

The Teen Science Café Network is a national network of organizations that host Cafés. Our Network Resource Center works to grow and support organizations starting and continuing their own Teen Science Cafés. Network members support each other by sharing resources and expertise regarding Cafés, including models for mentoring teens to take ownership of their program and methods of vetting and preparing scientists and engineers to interact effectively with a teenage audience. Membership is free, and our site contains rich resources, guides, and templates for starting your own local Café. New members are mentored through the start up process and can attend our annual training workshop at no cost. We host Open Mic Chats for new members and curious people to engage with us and learn about teen science cafés. Small grants are available for start up of a new Café for sites that meet the criteria. See our website TeenScienceCafe.org for more information or contact us at info@teensciencecafe.org.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1223830. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

REFERENCES

Fayer ,Stella, Alan Lacey, and Audrey Watson. 2015. “STEM Occupations: Past, Present, and Future.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Accessed August 3, 2017 from: https://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2017/ science-technology-engineering-and-mathematics-stem-occupations-past-present-and-future/pdf/science-technology-engineering-and-mathematics-stem-occupations-past-present-and-future.pdf.

Hall, Michelle, Susan Foutz, and Michael Mayhew. 2012. “Design and Impacts of a Youth Directed Café Scientifique Program.” International Journal of Science Education, Part B: Communication and Public Engagement. Accessed August 3, 2017 from: http://cafenm.org/documents/Design_Impacts_of_Youth-directed_Cafe_Scientifique_Program.pdf.

Mayhew, Michael and Michelle Hall. 2012. “Science Communication in a Café Scientifique for High School Teens.” Science Communication 34 (4). pp. 547-555. Accessed August 3, 2017 from: http://cafenm.org/documents/Mayhew_Hall_Science%20Communication_article.pdf.

Sickler, Jessica and Tammy Cherry. 2017. “Impact of Teen Science Cafés on Scientists: Phase 1 Report.” Accessed August 3, 2017 from: https://teensciencecafe.org/resources/ impact-teen-science-cafes-scientists-phase-1-report/.

Michelle K. Hall is President of Science Education Solutions, Inc. She may be reached at hall@scieds.com. Michael A. Mayhew is a Senior Research Scientist at Science Education Solutions, Inc. He may be reached at m2mayhew@gmail.com. The authors are coDirectors of the Teen Science Café Network.