To start with, can you tell us in a nutshell about your Teen Café program? What’s special or unique about it?
Our Teen Café is at the Dallas Zoo! At the Zoo, we do science every day, and we have a very engaged teenage audience. Starting a Teen Science Café was a great way to offer more to our teens and integrate our Zoo professionals as occasional presenters. One of our teen leaders also likes to point out that when the Café is over, it is pretty cool to walk back through the Zoo at night.
What’s your background… how did you come to be involved with your Teen Café program?
My background is in environmental education with experience in both formal and informal settings. Prior to my current role as the Dallas Zoo’s director of education, I taught fifth grade outdoor education for the Houston Independent School District and served as the education manager for the Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center. The Dallas Zoo Education Department offers conservation education programs for four key audiences: early childhood, youth, families, and teachers. The Teen Science Café has been a new way to expand our offerings to teens and engage them in relevant learning experiences at the Zoo.
What organization provides a home for your Teen Café program? How do you see your program fitting with that organization’s mission?
The Dallas Zoo’s mission is “Engaging People & Saving Wildlife.” We see teenagers as one of the key audiences for moving forward our conservation mission. By engaging local teens in Café interactions with science professionals, the Zoo is reinforcing the interest in science some teens already have. And for the teens who think they aren’t into science, the Zoo provides an attractive venue that is a part of their community. We hear from some Café attendees that their perception of science actually improves as a result of the Café presentation. We know it’s going to take all of us, especially innovative, critical-thinking youth, to create a better world for wildlife.
What’s the biggest stumbling block you have encountered as your program has developed?
One stumbling block has been the teens’ schedules. They are involved in so many good activities at their stage in life. Adding in one more, like going to the Teen Science Café, isn’t always easy. As a result, our attendance can greatly fluctuate. Even our committed teen leadership team is not always easy to get together at the same time.
What has been your favorite Café? What made it so?
My favorite Café was our first one, focused on Humboldt penguins. The Dallas Zoo’s Chief Scientist, Patricia McGill, Ph.D., has spearheaded a census project counting the Humboldt penguins along the coast of Peru for many years. She shared the some of the details of field conservation, including the complicated process of counting penguins among other black and white birds while watching with binoculars from a boat on the waves. I loved seeing how involved, and competitive, all the teens got in her counting activities.
What do you like best about your program in general?
My favorite part of the program is how the teen leaders take ownership of the events. They have great ideas for activities, and they know what teens like. They decided to use a Kahoot online interactive quiz to introduce the Café topic, and it was so fun! I also enjoy learning about the various topics the presenters bring.
Do you have any advice for those just starting their own Teen Cafés?
Be flexible. What you envision for the Café and what actually happens may not be the same — the actual outcome may be even better! The best thing to concentrate on is supporting the teen leaders and helping make their vision a reality.