Spotlights on Café Adult Leaders Janice McDonnell & Christine Bean

Picture of Janice McDonnell & Christine Bean.
Janice McDonnell (left) and Christine Bean

To start with, can you tell us in a nutshell about your Teen Café program? What’s special or unique about it?

Our 4-H Teen Café launched this past 2016-17 school year, with the fall devoted to planning and then our inaugural series of 3 cafes in the spring. We have a core group of ~15 teens that actively plan and facilitate the cafes. It’s exciting to work with them as we build the program from the ground-up.   They also really enjoy being around each other!

The opportunity to host the café on the main campus of Rutgers – a major research university – is extraordinary. The teens hear from research scientists that represent a multitude of disciplines, and they are immersed in the collegiate atmosphere.

And, we are part of the statewide 4-H program, which allows us to tap into teens and programs from across the state. The café provides them a unique, STEM-based opportunity to complement their 4-H experience.

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

Both of us are trained in science (Janice in marine ecology, Christine in geology) and have spent much of our careers in science education.

Janice: I met up with Michelle Hall at a National Alliance for Broader Impacts conference, who suggested that I consider joining the Network. I realized it was a great next step for the on-campus 4-H programs that I direct, by allowing us to expand our programming to teens.

Christine: I’d learned about teen cafés during my career in museum education. I was thrilled to find that Rutgers had started a café and was happy to join the effort.

What organization provides a home for your Teen Café program?  How do you see your program fitting with that organization’s mission?

We’re lucky to have our home at Rutgers University – New Brunswick, the flagship campus of our state university. Rutgers-New Brunswick is also the home of the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, a research and outreach arm that includes 4-H youth development.

Picture of 8 Teen Leaders from the 4-H Teen Café
Teen Leaders from the 4-H Teen Café.

Bringing teens to campus supports the university’s commitment to youth outreach and STEM education. The teens become comfortable on campus and can imagine themselves enrolling here. The café themes allow them to learn more about the breadth of scientific research and opportunities available at Rutgers. We anticipate this will further build and broaden the pipeline of students majoring in STEM. Finally, many of the teens’ parents are Rutgers alumni and enjoy reconnecting with the university.

What’s the biggest stumbling block you have encountered as your program has developed?

Scheduling the cafés to allow the greatest number of teens to attend, since some travel from over an hour to the Rutgers campus. With the guidance of our teen leader council, we decided on Saturdays from 11-1:30, with lunch included.

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

Our first café, The Science of Love and Heartbreak, holds a special place. The topic and title, suggested by our teens, was intriguing and thought-provoking. Approximately 40 teens attended from 9 different counties – some of whom came from over an hour away on public transportation. Our featured scientist even brought along live goats to underscore the topic! It was a gorgeous day, and family members who accompanied their teens were able to walk around the adjacent Rutgers farm to see the animals. The teen leaders were so eager to embrace their roles in running the café, and the success of program really bolstered their enthusiasm.

Teen examine bee specimens with a presenter at 4H Teen Science Café in NJ.
Examining bee specimens with a presenter.

What do you like best about your program in general?

Providing a platform for teens to get to know each other, grow in confidence, and take on further leadership roles gives us a lot of satisfaction. We also love our location—a coffeehouse in one of the newly-renovated Student Centers. The teens feel really special and excited to be in this space, surrounded by college students.

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

Look for a base of teens to build from. In our case, we drew upon 4H teens who were already familiar with volunteering and leadership roles. Let the students direct the program as much as possible—they have great instincts and ideas. Take advantage of online meeting platforms such as Zoom, which we use to supplement in-person planning meetings and allows more teen leaders to participate.

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