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 program was started with a group of 8 enthusiastic teens and 2 adult mentors last September. Our leadership team has chosen the title “STEM SAVVY” for the café and designed its logo (café website: www.sd-discovery.org/TSC). We are located at the SD Discovery Center in central South Dakota, along the Missouri River in Pierre. Although we meet monthly, we only schedule cafés every 3 months as we combine the organization of cafés with professional development for our leadership team and offer training sessions in marketing, communications, and leadership with local experts.
What’s your background… how did you come to be involved with your Teen Café program?
I am a scientist by training and ventured into the world of outreach through a Portal to the Public Science Communication Fellowship (https://popnet.instituteforlearninginnovation.org/) as a postdoc. Through the Fellowship at the Science Center of Iowa, I volunteered at Science Cafés (for adults) and outreach events for families as the expert and really enjoyed these exchanges. My job now as Education Director at the SD Discovery Center focuses on science communication and enabling scientist-and-public engagement. When I had the chance, I jumped at the opportunity to start a Teen Science Café at my organization.
What organization provides a home for your Teen Café program? How do you see your program fitting with that organization’s mission?
The SD Discovery Center has a vision to create curiosity in children, inspire teachers, and motivate citizens so that they will seek scientific knowledge. My role is to train scientists to become better communicators through Portal to the Public workshops, train teachers to implement research into their classrooms, and organize our camps and classes to follow the scientific method, incorporate research, citizen science, and feature experts. One of our least represented age groups are high school students. Our Teen Science Café really helped us make those connections and engage high school students.
What’s the biggest stumbling block you have encountered as your program has developed?
We are still in the process of working out the stumbling blocks. I think the biggest so far is finding the right audience and getting students to register ahead of time to plan accordingly. We have had three cafés so far. For the first, only very few students showed up and our youth leadership team was very disappointed and discouraged. They were so excited and put in so much effort and then hardly anyone showed up. For the second café we worked with local teachers to offer extra credit and we had 60 students attend. Of course most of them did not register ahead of time, so this was way more than we had planned for. We managed to make last minute adjustments and our speaker was very accommodating and flexible, but it was certainly not ideal. The last café was in the summer, so we could not work with the teachers. Our attendance was lower than we had hoped, but better than the first café. So finding our sweet spot, getting students to register, and getting more high school students to attend is still a challenge.
What has been your favorite Café? What made it so?
We have only had three cafés so far and choosing one is not easy. The topics and speakers were all fantastic. For the first café, we skyped with the IceCube team at the South Pole (https://icecube.wisc.edu/). The second café, we had researchers from the Sanford Underground Research Facility (https://sanfordlab.org/), a mile underground, visit with us. They work on the detection of neutrinos and dark matter. For the third café, neuroscientists from University of South Dakota (https://www.usd.edu/cbbre) brought cat ears that we could control with our thoughts. If I had to choose, I think the last café on Neuroscience was my favorite, because of the numbers of attendees and their level of engagement.
What do you like best about your program in general?
We have had an absolutely amazing team this year that helped us get the café up and running. Seeing the progress and successes of the team and the individuals is the most rewarding aspect to me. I had a lot of seniors on the team that are leaving for college and they will be dearly missed! We just took our team for an end-of-the-year thank-you trip for all of their hard work and time they put into the café. We went camping in the Badlands in SD and had a great experience together. The team was roughing it at a primitive campground with prairie dogs, Bison walking past our tents at midnight, trailblazing through the brush, ankle to knee-deep sticky mud and the summer heat and we all had a blast!
Do you have any advice for those just starting their own Teen Cafés?
When we started out, I was worried about finding members for the leadership team in our rural location. I got in touch with the local high school teacher who teaches a leadership class and she gave me 10 minutes in each of her classes to talk about this opportunity. I left flyers with the date and location for an informational meeting with pizza and that’s how I got my team together. It was easier than I thought. We are still in the process of figuring out the best setting for us, such as optimal number of attendees for the cafés, best places to advertise, attracting high school students, task assignment and committee structure, etc. So I am not ready to give advice on that other than: try out what works best for you, ask around to see what others are doing, and don’t be afraid to do things differently. For us, we do cafés every three months instead of every month, we do PD training with our team, we have had three committees this year, but we will try it without committee structure in the coming school year and see how it goes.