Spotlight on Café Adult Leader Cynthia Spratley

Tell us in a nutshell about your TSC program?

The genesis for the York County Teen Science Café began in 2014, at a museum conference in Raleigh, NC where I chose to sit in a break-out session that the NC Museum of Natural Science was hosting about Teen Cafés. I had never experienced what the speakers described, teens leading science cafés, but from that moment I wanted to try it! I contacted TSC network and with Michelle Hall’s encouragement our own Café debuted in August 2017. It was a few months later that I was invited to attend a TSC Network conference in Dallas, TX. and that sealed the deal! The national network gave me a community of support and lots of great ideas from those that had been running Cafés for years already. It was like a kick start! I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel!

What’s special or unique about it?

What really makes us unique is the teens themselves!  I tell them that each of them is unique, talented and smart!  They prove me right all the time!


YOCO (teen slang for York County) Teen Science Café is run by 12 teen advisors that are invested in or curious about STEAM topics. The teens that come to the Cafés represent eight public high schools, 3 private high schools and home schools. We have more young women than men and a very diverse ethnic representation.

We average between 25-70 teens and 5-6 curious adults each month from rural and suburban areas of our county. These teens relish the social, physical, and mental opportunity to come together monthly to discuss STEAM topics.  They also like free food!  The first time our teen advisors met was to go through a team building/low ropes challenge course for half a day and it was the bond that connected a very ethnically diverse group of teens together as leaders.  We were the first Teen Science Café in our state of South Carolina!


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

Well, it really is not about me. It is about resources and networking. I happen to have a B.S. degree in Environmental Interpretation and enjoy mentoring teens and love to learn. I have the position of Family Program and Education Manager for the Museum of York County, which gives me a location to meet, and then it really is about how to reach teens in the community… I started with the network I already had. Two local Environmental Science educators that taught high school science and loved teens, a local librarian that worked with young adults, (the York County Library in Rock Hill became my first partner), and two local female college professors passionate about STEAM (one became a speaker at a cafe), all jumped on board as adult advisors and assisted me in reaching out to students. In my fantasy world, I would love to just do Teen Science Cafés and mentor teens full time!


What organization(s) provides a home for your Teen Café program?

Our teen advisors meet at the York County Public Library, our partner facility once a month, a week before each Café. They meet the upcoming speakers, plan the event, and work on the flyers for upcoming cafés. The actual YOCO Teen Science Cafés are held monthly at the Museum of York County. This has been a great partnership because if I was trying to do it all on my own I feel it would have worn me out. We have 1-2 adult advisors come to the teen advisory meetings to give insight, keep things focused, and role model how to be effective leaders, but they encourage the teens to make the decisions and lead.


How do you see your program fitting with those organization(s)’ missions?

The missions of the Museum and the Public Library are similar in that we are trying to serve underserved and diverse people in the community, educate through many formats like speaking, technology, and reading. We both use STEAM in many of our other programs, so we are meeting several organizational goals in providing the Teen Science Café experiences.  It has helped us reach teens with something relevant to them and gives them the responsibility of leadership with support. It also reaches out to our professional STEAM scientists, researchers, and professionals and opens the door for them to have a forum to converse with young adults that are interested in what they do every day in their career fields. The future of our community is our young people and their support later on  for our organizations will come from the value they receive now.   ( and )


What’s the biggest stumbling block you have encountered as your program developed?
There are three things that I have found to be tough:

  1. Finding community sponsors to keep the program going year to year. We try to create t-shirts, flyers and the summer leadership/team-building activities, which requires funds and the time it takes to promote the group to stakeholders is a heavy burden, especially each year when you are also trying to promote to new groups of incoming teens.
  2. Reaching out into the private and public school community and home schools is difficult until you find a parent or educator that will carry your torch! We did find that guidance counselors in the schools and district science curriculum/coordinators can be a big help in getting the word out to the teens.
  3. Getting promotional flyers, announcements, videos, social media ready ahead of time and distributed is tricky and takes talented and committed teens to accomplish. Let them do it!


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

I have enjoyed and learned from every speaker we had, but my favorites have been those that sparked a noticeable response in the teens…to see them get excited or be awed by what they don’t know is exciting and contagious. My college professor adult advisors say it refreshes them just to come and see what this generation is curious about and it front loads their own research and class assignments. We have had lots of great Cafés, but three favorites were:  our County Coroner coming in and talking about her research into homicide cases and letting teens try to solve one; a herpetologist that discussed why herps are indicator species and shared live snakes; and an anesthesiologist who instructed teens and let them try to put a ventilation tube down a mannequin’s throat.

Teens put a ventilation tube in a mannequin’s throat.

What do you like best about your program in general?

The diversity of thought, passionate conversations and wide range of perspectives!  Most importantly the respect which the teens give to each other and to the speakers gives me great hope for future civil discourse in our country!


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

Take the plunge!  It is one of the most challenging and exciting things I have ever done. Networking and communication is key!  Develop a support group of adult STEAM advisors and encourage them to help you identify teens in their circles of influence that may benefit from leadership training and may be underserved in the community. Some teens didn’t know they had a STEAM interest until they came to a Café and heard a speaker!

We found teens that due to gender, home zip code, ethnic or religious background or disability/special needs felt they did not have a STEAM option or voice. We have several autistic teens that come and knock my socks off with their tech knowledge. You only need a spark to get a Teen Science Café up and running.  Create partnerships and do not try to go it lone ranger! Tie into the national TSC Network, it is like having a board room of experts you are connected to all the time! Let the teens fail. Dust them off and send them back out! They like being trusted and they hardly ever disappoint. Appreciate them! When they do fail, remember it is their Cafe and make it a teachable moment!  Keep smiling and say “Thank You! every day”

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