To start with, can you tell us in a nutshell about your Teen Café program? What’s special or unique about it?
Our Teen Science Cafés are unique because they are conceived from weekly teen discussions. Every Tuesday, our Teen Ambassadors (a group of high school students from across Philadelphia) meet at the Penn Museum to discuss topics that are important to them. In small groups, they conduct research to present their topics to the larger group. The Teen Science Cafés are an extension of their favorite discussions and allow them to dig deeper into a topic that inspired or resonated with them. This allows their cafés to be relevant, collective, and engaging. It also makes for cafés that are interdisciplinary and break the typical interpretation of ‘science.’
What’s your background… how did you come to be involved with your Teen Café program?
My background is in anthropology, archaeology, and fine art. My colleague, Thomas Leischner, started the Teen Ambassador program over 6 years ago. Sometime in 2017, a past Ambassador suggested hosting Teen Science Cafes after hearing of it in other cities. At the time, I was working on Penn Museum engagement for the University of Pennsylvania students. When Thomas left in 2018, the Museum decided to create my position to connect our teen audience to the University students and resources. Thomas piloted two Teen Science Cafés before he left and they worked so well with our program goals that we have embraced them ever since!
What organization provides a home for your Teen Café program? How do you see your program fitting with that organization’s mission?
The Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology strives to transform the understanding of the human experience through research, exhibitions, and public educational programs. I believe nothing is more transformative than our teen years. Our Teen Science Cafés benefit immensely from the Penn Museum’s many resources – access to over 1 million objects from all over the world, students from the University of Pennsylvania, museum professionals and curators, and exhibition spaces and labs – to help Philadelphia teens develop a greater understanding of themselves and the world around them. It has become a symbiotic relationship, because the teens find a platform for youth expression and the Museum gains young consultants that bring unique and diverse perspectives.
What’s the biggest stumbling block you have encountered as your program has developed?
Predicting attendance. We found that hosting our cafés earlier encourages more students to come directly from school, rather than taking multiple trips home and back out (along with extra transportation fares). This was very effective in increasing our numbers, however, it is still difficult to predict attendance.
What has been your favorite Café? What made it so?
Mythbusters: Science: Fact or Fiction with PhD candidate Lizzie Oakley. We all love science, right? Of course, it’s why we create Teen Science Cafes! However, this café was one of my favorites because it unpacked the ways in which science is presented and used. In the end, it demonstrated the importance of having an informed and critical lens. The Teen Ambassadors created a game for teens to guess which scientific theories were widely accepted, proven false, or completely fiction! The game was so popular the Ambassadors decided to adapt and use it for this year’s Philadelphia Science Festival. Unfortunately, the Festival was cancelled this year due to COVID-19, but we look forward to using it next year!
What do you like best about your program in general?
My favorite part is looking forward to what the Teen Ambassadors will bring to their discussions. Their topics span every subject, from climate change, to LGBTQIA rights, to propaganda posters in WW2. I never know what to expect, but they always exceed my expectations and teach me something new. Since the Teen Ambassadors have 100% control over the content, their topics are always what is interesting or impactful to them. My job is to give them the tools and resources so they can dive deeper into those interests; it’s unbelievably rewarding and gives me hope for a better future.
Do you have any advice for those just starting their own Teen Cafés?
Take a step back and support instead of lead. As someone who runs events it can be difficult to give up control, but, in my opinion, it is the most important aspect of the Teen Science Cafés. After our café on Climate Change, two of the Teen Ambassadors led several protests for the Philadelphia Youth Climate Strike. They were able to navigate the organizing, planning, and marketing of these protests completely autonomously. Listen and make suggestions, but in the end let them have the final decision because that is the best way to encourage self-efficacy, leadership, and critical thinking.