Spotlight on Sharon Sessions

The Socorro County Teen Science Network includes Cafés in Socorro, Magdalena, and Alamo Navajo Reservation.  They all started as satellites based with New Mexico Tech as the backbone foundation, but are evolving independently and in response to the local needs, resources, and leadership.  We have the ability to leverage research and students in each district as well as New Mexico Tech.  We are a unique program in that we exist as a network that spans much of the county.  The Socorro Network provides a unique and informal way to connect and share the stories of world-class researchers with students in the rural communities we serve.

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

I grew up in Santa Fe, NM and earned a BS in Math and Physics from New Mexico Tech.  After receiving a PhD in Quantum Field Theory at the University of Oregon, I spent one year in Dresden, Germany, working on postdoctoral research at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems.  I was looking to change my research focus to Atmospheric Physics, and a visiting faculty position in the physics department opened up at New Mexico Tech.  I applied and the visiting position became tenure track, and I’ve climbed the ranks to full professor of physics.

In that time period, I participated in outreach activities in our local school district, and was designated as the official liaison between New Mexico Tech and the Socorro Consolidated School District in 2016.  That was a fantastic opportunity to create more opportunities to integrate the two major educational systems in Socorro.  As a consequence of my involvement in outreach, I was invited to participate in a New Mexico Tech Alumni advisory group–Women In Science and Engineering (WISE)–where I met Michelle Hall, the founder of the Teen Science Cafés.  I had previously researched TSCs and thought there should be one in Socorro, and Michelle had seed funding available for new TSCs; the opportunity was perfect to get us started.

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

New Mexico Tech is the backbone organization for the Socorro Teen Science Cafe Network, though as each member community is developing, they are becoming their own sovereign program.  Socorro’s TSC program has transferred to the Socorro Public Library under the leadership of Kathy Spring.  This provides a location easily accessible by the community while helping the Municipal Library to achieve their goal of increasing the engagement of more teens.  Magdalena’s program seeded an even bigger endeavor.  The local organizer, Jim Sauer, acquired a location that not only houses the TSC, but has also served to provide additional STEM activities for all K-12 students during the Fridays that school is out.  Alamo’s program has remained strongly tied to New Mexico Tech in collaboration with Alamo High School.  This model works well since we are able to build a strong relationship between NMT and Alamo through the TSC program.  This also allows us to provide activities and food to this remote community.

Although we are still working out some of the infrastructure details associated with a network involving three unique rural communities, our program’s mission aligns perfectly with the overall mission of the Teen Science Cafe: to provide opportunities for teens to socialize with scientists and engineers leading cutting-edge research, and as a consequence, give them a chance to “see themselves” in those careers.  Due to the uniqueness of each of our programs, this has evolved differently and in a way that best serves the local teen community.

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

The most difficult part of developing our program is simultaneously coordinating new programs in three unique and geographically separated programs, and accommodating for the needs of each community.  We had the resources to launch the program before we had the logistics in place of how each would operate.  We started with the idea that we would leverage presenters from one cafe and have them repeat that presentation at the other sites.  There were logistical challenges with this approach, though we were still able to use this strategy to launch the programs.  As each site began to evolve more independently, local leadership took over.  Of course, the pandemic is a more recent stumbling block that has impacted the entire world, including our Socorro TSC Network.

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

Dr. Bruce Harrison shares his story on becoming a geologist to students in Alamo.

My favorite Cafe featured Dr. Bruce Harrison, Soil Geomorphologist (Geologist) Professor at New Mexico Tech.  It was my favorite because the story of how he became a geologist was really accessible to students.  Sometimes people have the perception that scientists are not really approachable and they have these super brain powers that make them unable to relate to non-scientists. Bruce’s story completely shattered this perception.  He grew up in New Zealand and originally wanted to be a sheep farmer like his grandfather.  He saw the effects of overgrazing on the land, and wanted to “save the soil”.  Over time, that inspired him to pursue education in geology.  This story was really inspiring and relatable.  I think it was particularly impactful to the Alamo students.

What do you like best about your program in general?

The best part of our program is that we have a connection between New Mexico Tech and several rural communities in Socorro County.  We can leverage this connection to expand opportunities beyond the Teen Science Cafe, and hopefully inspire students to pursue education and careers in STEM.

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

For anyone wishing to start their own Cafe, I would recommend having some of the basic logistics in place prior to moving forward.  In our case, the opportunity to get started came before the logistics.  This made the early stages a bit complicated, especially since we were working with three unique locations.  However, the fact that we have a network that can leverage each other’s efforts while strengthening relationships between New Mexico Tech and communities across Socorro County is incredible.

Dr. Stipo Sentic guides students at Alamo High School in building a weather station that they can install locally for collecting and analyzing weather data.

Socorro High School students build a weather station.