Spotlight on Tokiwa Smith


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

SEM Link’s Teen Café is a program of our Math and Science Career Academy, which is our program that engages K-12 students in career exploration and hands on STEM activities. This is our only program that is targeted specifically for teens. What is unique about our program is that we focus on ensuring that all of our topics are real-world applications of STEM to ensure that the kids are engaged and interested in the topic. In addition, since the populations of the students that we serve represent groups that are underrepresented in STEM, we ensure that our Teen Café speakers also represent those groups.


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

I’m the Founder and Executive Director of SEM Link and my background is chemical engineering.  I’m familiar with Science Cafés for adults, I have attended several of them. Also in our early days, we hosted Science Cafés for families in partnership with the library.  In our 2017-18 program year, I was thinking about ways we could have a greater participation of teens in our programs.  A colleague told me about the Teen Science Café and I decided that would be a part of our programs that are targeted to teens, primarily high school students.


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

SEM Link implements our programs in partnerships with community organizations and schools. Our Teen Science Café follows that same model because we partner with Boys and Girls Club of Metro Atlanta and Usher’s New Look Foundation to implement this program. We also hosted a Teen Science Café for the Atlanta Science Festival Chief Scientific Officer Program. All of the organizations that we partner with serve high school students and focus on youth development. Therefore, it aligns great with their missions because academic enrichment programs such as the Teen Science Café aligns with their youth development goals, in specifically our partners with helping to prepare their students for college and career through activities that expose them to various career pathways and provides mentors for the students.


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

The biggest stumbling block has been logistics, especially with our partner Boys and Girls Club of Metro Atlanta. We offer this program monthly at a host club for that club and several clubs within a 10-15 minute drive of the club. At times, due to transportation issues, we aren’t able to get students for all of the clubs to participate.


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

I loved so many of the cafés, but my favorite speakers were from our Corporate Partners Georgia Bureau of Investigations (GBI). In December 2017, we had 3 GBI forensic biologists as the speakers for our Teen Science Café with our community partner the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Atlanta. They talked to the teens about their career journeys, taught basic concepts of forensic biology. The hands on activity, was adapted from the plot of the movie Friday after Next. In this movie a fake Santa was stealing Christmas presents from the neighborhood. In the hands on activity, the GBI scientists taught the teens how to collect DNA evidence from clothing and they were able to use that evidence to determine which suspect was the Santa that was stealing everyone’s presents. At this café, there was one high school senior that wanted to major in forensic science, so he was able to ask questions and get the contact information from the scientists to help guide him along his desired career path.


What do you like best about your program in general?

I love that the Teen Science Café aligns with all of our other program activities, providing teens the opportunity to meet and interact with the STEM community to explore STEM Careers. At every café, there has been at least one teen that has wanted to pursue the career of the topic of the café.


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

As you develop your café, make sure that you tailor it to what your organization is good at and has the resources to make happen. Also be sure that you align your café with your overall program goals. Also be sure to select great partners; your café will be more successful with great partners.