Teen Science Café Network
Core Design Principles
1. Café programs are highly engaging and interactive.
Cafés are structured to promote lively conversation and interaction among teens and the presenter; a teen science café program is not a lecture series.
What accounts for the overwhelming popularity of the teen science café model is the blend of socializing over food and drink with having a lively conversation with a scientist on some interesting topic. The role of the adult leader of a teen café program is to support teen leaders in creating the setting and the atmosphere for a delightful interaction among the teens and the presenter as a fun—and educational—social experience.
The teen leaders have a critical role in creating this atmosphere by greeting arriving teens and capturing contact information, setting a teen-friendly food table, chatting with the presenter and other teens, doing a proper opening and closing ceremonies, deploying technology, and conducting video interviews with presenters.
Choice of venue is important as well, as it needs to be conducive to interaction and conversation, have good acoustics, and ideally have to some degree an intimate quality.
2. Scientists are carefully vetted and coached in how best to communicate with teens.
Focusing on storytelling, the big ideas, why it matters, and how it will change our world—supported by a few key, jargon-free graphics—is of the essence.
A good presenter can make the most esoteric topic fascinating, while a poor presenter can make the most interesting topic boring. We seek presenters who are natural conversationalists and storytellers, but most will need guidance. However, with some coaching by the adult leader scientist-presenters can readily adopt the conversational, interactive approach that pulls in the teen audience.
After identifying and vetting a potential presenter, a welcoming invitation is sent that includes a summary what the program is all about. In the likely event that the scientist expresses interest, a follow-up email will include the proposed café dates, locations of the venues, and start times of the events, along with the Presenter Guide and possibly other written documents that provide guidance on best practices for communicating with teens.
The adult leader meets with the scientist to help him or her frame the café presentation. This is an opportunity to help the presenter identify the Most Important Thing in the presentation—plus no more than three take-away ideas or images—and thus focus his or her thinking.
The essential dry run that includes some teen leaders is invaluable in getting the presentations pitched at the right level and the graphics comprehensible.
3. Teens gain ownership of their program through opportunities for leadership.
Teen Leadership Teams are responsible for all aspects of their program, with adult leaders providing support in the background.
Teen leadership is of fundamental importance to a teen science café program. Allowing teen leaders to take charge of all aspects the program, with an adult leader providing support in the background, gives those teens a sense of ownership of the program, and unleashes the teens’ energy and creativity. This is the “secret of success” of the teen science café model.
An adult leader will meet with the teen leaders as often as there are cafés to review how the previous café went— discuss any issues, what improvements are warranted—and to plan and practice leadership roles for the upcoming café. These meetings strengthen the teen leaders’ sense of purpose and camaraderie.
Organizing a one day retreat in advance of the start of a café season allows teen leaders to get to know one another and develop a sense of themselves as a cohort. Leadership training should be included as can exercises designed to elicit teens’ concepts of what the café sessions should be like. The retreat sets clear expectations and sets the tone for teen leadership for the season ahead.
4. Each café site must have an adult leader who is committed to the program.
The adult leaders have the energy and dedication to organize and support the proactivity of teen leaders.
The adult leader is the lynchpin of the café program. Although many teens eagerly volunteer to be teen leaders, their success in this role is heavily dependent on the leadership skill of the adult leader. The role of the adult leader is first and foremost to instill in the teens a proactive mind set and a sense of freedom to take responsibility for doing what needs to be done to make their program a success, in short to grow as leaders. With this mind set teen leaders will seek to improve, innovate, and perfect their program. The teens will also have the freedom to make mistakes, learn from them, and improve.
An effective adult leader understands that working with teen leaders as a true mentor is a real opportunity to impact their trajectory into adulthood. Teenagers need positive, enduring relationships with adults. If teens are to grow into adults that function well in society as leaders and a role-models themselves, they need to have relationships with adults who exhibit those traits.
Nurturing the leadership development of teen leaders is the most important and challenging of an adult leader’s job, but other responsibilities include vetting and coaching presenters, keeping the schedule, communicating with parents, and maintaining continuity of the venue.
5. Café programs seek to attract teens with diverse motivations and life experiences.
Diversity includes ethnicity, culture, and gender, but also motivations to learning about science. Teen science cafés are not just for the science geeks; they are for all curious teens.
Many teens start attending teen café events primarily for the social interaction, and would not characterize themselves as “interested in science.” They get a new perspective on science and the work of scientists wholly different from what they get in school. They may gain a new perspective on relevance of science to their lives. Some may discover the possibility of a career in science. So, it is important to actively welcome all teens to a teen café program, not just those who would already be interested in science.
Teen café programs expose teens to the wide range of careers that involve science and technology beyond academic research: lab techs, mechanical support, environmental assays, surveyors, water quality and supply, natural resource management, science journalism, the art of science and the science of art, and many others. Thus, a quality teen café program will seek to engage presenters with a wide range of expertise drawn directly from the community it serves.
The teen café model allows learning that is meaningful to the lives of teens. This can be a challenge when presenters attempt to engage teens that are traditionally underrepresented in STEM disciplines, while simultaneously lacking familiarity with their culture. Such disconnects can result in the under-valuing and/or lack of interest in café topics. Thus, cultural sensitivity is essential for café programs in such diverse settings, so that the teen café model can be accessible to and impactful on teens of all backgrounds. One way to approach teens is to ask open ended non-threatening questions.
6. Café organizers actively cultivate strong community relationships.
Building relationships with scientific and teen-serving organizations can increase participation of both teens and scientists, support community awareness, and sustain a teen science café program.
Partnerships with other organizations build support for a teen café program, and the fruits of partnerships can potentially enrich the whole of the Network. Partnerships can take a wide variety of forms. It can be a simple as a collaboration of two or more teen café sites to work on a new strategy for some key program area. Partnerships with academic, research center, health care, museum, or other type organizations can insure a steady flow of high-quality presenters. Parental support is very important, and partnerships with parent-teacher or other parent organizations and use of social media can build this support.
Partnerships with Science Festivals, Science Fairs, Science Olympiad, Supercomputing Challenge, robotics clubs, and other such programming can support and sustain teens’ interest and engagement in science. Partnerships with schools build teachers’ support via promoting the teen café program in their classrooms and posting of flyers; morning announcements of upcoming café events; announcements during half time at sporting events; and posting of banners and announcements of school marquees.
Local TV and radio stations are often eager to promote youth programming, and may conduct interviews with local scientists that can be likely candidates for café presenters. Partnerships with scouting, 4-H, Boys and Girls Clubs, and YMCA/YWCA program may draw teens to the café program or the creation of new teen café sites.