To start with, can you tell us in a nutshell about your Teen Science Café program? What’s special or unique about it?
Explora hosts a Portal to the Public (PoP) training program for STEM professionals each year. In this PoP training we work with scientists and engineers to develop their communication skills and prepare them for conversations with public audiences, facilitated through a hands-on activity related to their work. This past year we added a workshop specifically around training STEM professionals to have conversations with teens during a Teen Science Café.
What’s your background… how did you come to be involved with your Teen Science Café program?
Explora has operated a high school internship program (our Youth Intern Program) for many years, during which high school juniors and seniors (it’s a 2.5 year program) learn to facilitate hands-on science activities during Explora programs, both on-site but also in the community through our extensive outreach program. It’s also important to us to provide our Youth Interns with opportunities to meet scientists and to understand the importance of science to our community and everyday lives. So we thought it would be a natural fit to use this existing teen program as the framework to build a Teen Science Café program on.
What organization provides a home for your Teen Science Café program? How do you see your program fitting with that organization’s mission?
Explora’s new “Cradle through Career” strategic priorities includes the development of an Explora STEM Education and Workforce Development Center for teens. A Teen Science Café program provides great opportunities for STEM career mentoring along with STEM content learning.
What’s the biggest stumbling block you have encountered as your program has developed?
Trying to incorporate the Teen Science Café program into an existing teen program (our Youth Intern Program) has proven to be challenging. This is a program “add-on” that we essentially imposed on the teens. It would have been better if they were teen-lead because they wanted to be part of the café organizing group, rather than they are a teen lead because they are a Youth Intern.
Also, there are a lot of component parts involved with hosting a successful TSC, and it is hard to get them all right for each of the Cafés. For example, one Café might include a lot of input from your teen leaders — they, for example, might put together a really fun, engaging ice breaker — but then your presenter doesn’t do a good job. You might have 50 teens come to one Café and 6 come to the next. You might find that you have several great conversations and a really successful dry run with your presenter, but that none of your teen leaders can participate in the Café that month, even though they created and agreed to the schedule at the beginning of the year.
What has been your favorite Café? What made it so?
A young professional working at Sandia National Laboratories did a Café on the ways scientists can use probability to understand the world around us. Dr. Yee’s communication style was what made the Café so great. Not only was he able to use analogies and stories to help the teens make connections and deepen their understanding, but he also was truly interested in understanding what each teen’s ideas were. He would ask a question, then try to gather the ideas/answers to that question from as many teens as possible — without judgment. He asked the teens to explain their thinking, and it was absolutely apparent that Dr. Yee cared about what the teens had to say. It was really great to watch.
What do you like best about your program in general?
I love that our TSC program gets teens involved with Explora. We don’t offer a lot of programming for teens, and TSC gives these teens access to science and scientists in their community. The dialogue/conversation model is a great fit for us as an informal science institution.
Do you have any advice for those just starting their own Teen Cafés?
Again, it’s hard to get all the component parts of a TSC right for each of the Cafés. I would recommend starting with a strong teen leader program, agree on what success will look like, and create a road-map with roles and responsibilities to get there. Communication and flexibility are going to be essential. I would also say that it is hard to over-state the importance of a strong presenter-training process.