Spotlight on Ashley Zalabak

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

The South Carolina Aquarium’s Teen Science Café is an informal learning series for teens, ages 13 to 17. We host a variety of different scientists that lead hands-on activities with teens and allow them to dive deeper into STEM career topics. It typically has a tie in with the Aquarium and/or a marine focus. One of the things that is special about it is that we have our own staff lead cafes sometimes, so it gives students a chance to explore careers specifically at the Aquarium.

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

I have my Bachelors of Science degree in Marine Biology from the College of Charleston. I have been working at the South Carolina Aquarium for almost 10 years (this May) and absolutely love my job! I specifically manage all of our teen programs at the Aquarium, including the Teen Science Café. I have a passion for helping teens pursue their dreams and explore future career options. I love that the Teen Science Café brings like-minded teens together in an informal way so that they can dive even deeper into the things that interest them.

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

The Aquarium actually hosts most of the cafes onsite. We are in the midst of obtaining an outdoor classroom/learning lab just a few steps away from the Aquarium that will be the core venue for this program. I feel lucky that we are able to host them right here onsite and on the water!

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

Well, I guess the obvious answer is COVID-19. We have completely switched to virtual cafes on Zoom. We are still getting a large number of teens attending, but are really missing the hands-on component of the in person cafes. Other than the pandemic, our biggest stumbling block has been figuring out how to host a large number of people while still maintaining an intimate, hands-on feel that gets everyone involved.

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

My favorite café was definitely our first one! We had a shark biologist from the Department of Natural Resources come and talk to the students about his job, sharks in South Carolina, and led a shark dissection. We had 50 students and each of them had the opportunity to get their hands dirty and learn about sharks first hand. It was so cool to see them be so engaged in learning about sharks.







What do you like best about your program in general?

I love that this program gives those “nerdy” science students an outlet to be themselves, collaborate with other teens, learn something new, and dive deeper into a possible future career.

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

My advice would be to form relationships with career counselors and/or science teachers at local schools to help spread the word about your café. Having strong partnerships with schools and other scientific institutions has been a huge help to getting our café off the ground. Also, forming a core group of teen and adult advisors that can help you plan, organize, and lead the cafes. Teens know what other teens enjoy best and you can learn a lot by listening to them.