Eight Steps to Starting a Teen Science Café Program

STEP 1. Get a full understanding of the nature of a teen science café

To gain perspective on the potential impact of teen science café program formats and programming to engage, excite, and stimulate learning about science, read a short document describing a number of scenarios that have played within the teen café model and demonstrate how they align with the National Academy’s “Six Strands of Learning in Informal Environments.”

In its essence, what accounts for the overwhelming popularity of the science café model is the blend of socializing over food and drink with having a lively conversation with a scientist on some interesting science topic.

To fully achieve a sense of the nature of a teen café and what the teens, the teen leaders, presenters, and you can get out of participation, read the research behind the model and the corresponding impacts on teens when scientists engage with them.

As a member of the Teen Science Café Network, you have committed to adhering to the Core Design Principles framework. Within that framework, you have much flexibility in how you apply them to your local institutions and demographics. Think through how they apply in your unique situation.

We have assembled a rich Resource Library on the TSCN website, including Templates and Examples that will help you jump start your program.

Read some of the Cool Cafés and blog posts to learn what other members of the Network are doing their programs. Get to know other members by looking at the Spotlight section and reach out to them if you have questions.

STEP 2. Understand your role as adult leader

The adult leader—that’s you—is the linchpin of the teen science café program. How the adult leader conducts the interaction with the teen leaders and the presenters makes all the difference.

The “secret sauce” of a teen café program is that the teen leaders feel it is their program, run by themselves for the benefit of all the teens who come to the cafés. The critical role of the adult leader is to act, not as a director, but as a mentor and “guide-on-the side,” allowing the teen leaders to step up to their roles, be proactive, develop best policies and procedures, and to make mistakes and learn from them. Thus, they learn leadership skills.

The role of the adult leader is to encourage teen leaders to take the initiative in all aspects of the program, by asking questions that prompt teen leaders to take charge of their program.

Our focus on Positive Youth Development and the critical role of the adult leader as a mentor align with that of many out of school programs.

STEP 3. Find a venue

A wide variety of venues can make for suitable places to hold your cafés, and it is almost always possible to find one you can use for free. The important things are that it be a space that is conducive to good conversation among the teens and the presenter and that it has good acoustics. A cluster of circular tables is ideal. Stadium seating is not because everyone in the audience will be facing forward. Avoid an actual café for the venue, as there will be too much noise and commotion in the background.

STEP 4. Recruit a teen leadership team

The best way to do this is by contacting the principal or science chair at a local high school and ask for a brief meeting of the science teachers, maybe in their lounge before school starts or during their monthly staff meeting. Give them an overview of what your teen café program is all about, and ask for their help, stressing that such help is just encouraging their students to attend, and perhaps posting flyers on upcoming café events. You will generally find that the teachers are quite supportive.

See if at least one science teacher will allow you to come in to his or her class to make a pitch to the students. You will almost certainly find that a goodly number of students find the whole idea interesting. Explain that you are looking to recruit a group of teens who will lead the program, a teen leadership team. Pass around a sign-up sheet to collect contact information and include a place where a student can indicate interest in being a teen leader. Then you will be able to both invite an initial group of teens to your first café event and invite those who wish to be teen leaders to a first meeting with you.

STEP 5. Conduct your first teen leader meeting

Use this first meeting to share the concept of a teen science café. You might start with an ice breaker to get the teens interacting in a playful way. As a result of your initiative in STEP 4, you will have a contacts list of teens who have expressed interest in being on a leadership team, which you can use to invite them to the first meeting.

After thanking them for coming, just ask them in turn what is their motivation to participate; expect to get some interesting answers. This simple opening starts a conversation between you and them and allows you to get a feeling for the personalities of each of them. Project that you are genuinely interested in them and what they have to say.

Give them an overview of the nature of a teen science café, how a typical event goes—with each key element—and note the popularity of the model because of the blend of socializing over food and drink and getting to have a conversation with a real scientist on an interesting topic and at a very personal level. Note that their program will join over 100 such teen café programs around the country and point them to teensciencecafe.org

Now for a very important message: This will be their program, they will have responsibility for all aspects of it, with you the adult leader standing by to assist and suggest, but not direct. You trust in their creativity and proactivity. It will be up to them to invent the details of how they will run their program.

Share that the standard model is to have one event per month in the early evening, but there is flexibility there. Start a discussion of when is the best time to schedule events so as not to conflict with regularly scheduled programs in the community. This initiates them making decisions about their program.

Say that—assuming there will be one café per month—you and they will need to meet a second time, both to plan the next event and to practice their roles, e.g., introducing the presenter. Point out as well that one of their roles will be to promote the program in the schools and in the community, create and arrange for distribution of advertisements on upcoming events, and recruit other teens to join them in the teen leadership team.

Ask them, how does that sound? Then allow as much time as they need to ask questions and generally have a conversation about the program and their roles within it. Set up a time and place for the next meeting. If you do not already have a free venue, ask them about ideas for it.

STEP 6. Start a search for good presenters and vet them

Begin by just asking around. Who has experienced a presentation on a science topic by someone who is engaging, relaxed, maybe funny, and can make what might be an esoteric topic come alive? Approach contacts in local science and engineering organizations and ask for recommendations on colleagues who are doing some particularly interesting research and have given good talks to public audiences on the subject. The public relations office can often recommend scientists who are effective in interviews or public presentations. The public affairs office of a college or university can also often point you to faculty who have a reputation for quality public outreach.

If you have identified what seems a good candidate, if at all possible, inquire further to confirm that this will be a good choice. Having great presenters will keep kids coming back to your program and bringing their friends. Boring presenters or those who come in and give a dry or incomprehensible lecture will turn them off, and they will find more interesting things to do.

While a local college or university is an obvious place to find a presenter, science and scientist’s are  everywhere! Think broadly about the range of professions represented in your community that have roots in science—health care workers, emergency management specialists, engineers, surveyors, water quality managers, foresters, aviators…the possibilities are endless. The quality of the presenter is more important that the particular topic. The blog posts 10 Tips for Finding Great Teen Café Presentersand Seeking Presenters: Where To Look? will give you ideas for thinking outside the box in finding great presenters.

STEP 7. Recruit your first presenter

This is for many adult leaders the most intimidating step, asking a stranger to do something for you and your program. It is critical to state all of the things you will be asking the scientist to do up front. These include writing a short bio and essay about the presentation; doing a dry run of the ~20 minute presentation; and working with you to develop a hands-on activity.  Have the scientist ask as many as five questions of the audience in the first five minutes, then continue asking questions of the audience. It signifies for the teens that they can ask questions and then your program can turn in to a conversation.

Establish clear expectations of your presenter from the beginning. By having the scientist ask questions at the beginning, the presenter gets a sense of what the audience knows.  And if they continue to pose questions, this signals to the teens that they can ask questions.  You do not want the presenter to talk steadily for 20 minutes, then ask for questions. Emphasize that interactivity is one of the most important ingredients of a teen café, and that what teens value most in a teen café is interacting with a real scientist.

One of the key elements if for the scientist to share their personal story of how they found their path into STEM from high school to their first professional job. These stories can be humorous and enlightening for teens.  Your presenter should aim to paint for the teens a picture of a real person having an interesting life doing science. Telling that personal story is a hook for pulling the teens into the science story. Most presenters will find that they enjoy telling their stories.

Help your presenter understand that in a café two-way communication and interaction—supported by a few key graphics—is of the essence. The presentation needs to be free of jargon and delivered in an engaging manner at an entry level so that teens will be pulled in and have a chance to develop some new mental images. It is best to organize the presentation around one essential provocative concept that is accessible enough to the teens that they can engage in discussion.

Convey to your presenter that it is important to get across to teens that a scientist is a real, complex, multidimensional human, like them, with his or her own unique set of motivations, delights, abilities, and baggage. The presenter should try to convey that he or she is leading an interesting life. The presenter should stay away from where they were educated. It is much more engaging to the teens if a picture of the real person emerges. Scientists are typically not used to thinking in terms of personal stories, but each has an interesting and unique story to tell.

Meet your presenter “for coffee” and talk over the presentation. This face-to-face conversation is of great value in shaping the presenter’s expectations and the presentation’s content, while often relieving the presenter of some initial trepidation.

Help presenters develop hands-on activities or other means to increase interactivity. Teens engage best if they are able to dosomething. Encourage presenters to increase interactivity and engagement with the teens by bringing some hands-on kind of activity. Some presenters will already have a suitable activity. Others you might need to work with to brainstorm ideas for their activity.

It is important—and arguably essential—for presenters to do a dry run with a small group of teen leaders before presenting to a full house. You will find that this is exceedingly valuable in getting the presentations pitched at the right level and the graphics comprehensible. It also overcomes an intimidation factor for many presenters concerning presenting before an unfamiliar audience. It ensures the presenter prepares sufficiently early enough to give a high quality presentation. Tactfully overcome any initial resistance from your presenter and gently insist on the dry run…they will thank you afterwards!

STEP 8. Work on building a marketing and recruiting network

Establish contacts in local organizations with a science mission. You may draw café presenters from a variety of organizations: academic departments, national labs, government agencies, technology businesses. Find an individual in each such organization that can get excited about your program and be willing to help you locate good presenters within it. In time, your network will expand to include all the scientists you are able to recruit as presenters and they in turn will help you find other good presenters.

Seek out contacts in other organizations. Local businesses may be persuaded to provide support or an especially good venue for your cafés. Media outlets such as local newspapers and radio and TV stations may be willing to announce your café sessions. Establishing a personal relationship with a key person in such organizations is the secret of success. News organizations may also have suggestions on local STEM experts who provide particularly good interviews and presentations.

Connect with other local out-of-school programs such as teen centers, robotics and environmental clubs, and other STEM-related groups. Café topics may tie to the interests of these groups and provide a win-win opportunity for partnerships. Communicate regularly with the leaders of these other programs about the café events and provide opportunities in the café to support their mission where possible.

It is important to have supportive parents, so engage with them whenever the opportunity arises. They may drop their teens off at a café meeting or they may call you up to find out if the program is suitable for their children. Include parents in distribution lists that you use to announce upcoming café sessions; they are likely to then remind their kids to attend a café and/or transport them there.