Café Scientifique – Taos
This month, the spotlight interview takes us to Taos, New Mexico. Fantastic outdoor activities, rich history and heritage, and home of one of the sites in Café Scientifique New Mexico node of the TSCN. Meghan McFail joins us to discuss her successful journey to weave a Teen Café into a small art-heavy community.
TSCN: Start off, please, tell us in a nutshell about your Teen Café program . . . what’s special or unique about it?
MM: Taos is one of five sites in the Café Scientifique New Mexico node of the Teen Science Café Network. The supervision and help of Michelle Hall, Mike Mayhew, and the fantastic staff in Los Alamos makes our work much easier. They do an extraordinary job of providing resources including access to some of the world’s most cutting-edge scientists. This alone allows the teen leadership team and me the time to concentrate on the unique opportunities and challenges that a small town presents. Taos has ~7,000 residents and is home to more than 200 non-profits; establishing our Teen Cafe program’s place in this community and demonstrating its value is of foremost importance to us.
The teen leaders have an interesting “separate but equal” concept concerning their roles in the program. Everyone is equally accountable for their specific role, but their roles are separate and determined by the degree to which they can and wish to take on responsibility. One consequence of this concept is that the teen leaders chose to adopt a council structure that includes a president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer, and alternate officer. Under them are committee chairs, who are held accountable by the officers.
TSCN: Tell us a little about your background . . . how did you personally come to be involved with your Teen Café program?
MM: I was raised in upstate New York and I studied Zoology at Texas A&M University. Over the years my restless nature has led me to venture into a number of professional arenas, though it’s my background in sales and education that most prepared me for this particular work. Almost three years ago, I had an itch to move to Taos for the extraordinary scenery and to experience life in a rural setting. I’m not sure if it was luck or fate that just as I was set to make the move and looking for work Michelle Hall posted the position of Café Scientifique – Taos Site Coordinator. She hired me over the phone and thus far, it has been a great ride.
TSCN: What is the biggest stumbling block you have encountered as your program has developed?
MM: Obviously, stumbling is a key part of the learning process for every program. I think it’s the way you choose to perceive those stumbles that determines how well your program adapts and grows in response. More than a few times I’ve made the error of taking setbacks too personally. If an idea doesn’t pay off or a contact falls through, I have the tendency to assume it is my fault. When my ego takes over and the doubt creeps in, I become less likely to think and act outside the box, and the teen leaders notice it. My hesitancy can get in the way of the leaders’ enthusiasm, which serves no one. Simply put, my biggest stumbling block is usually myself.
TSCN: What was your favorite Café? What made it so?
MM: We’ve had several noteworthy cafés though my all-time favorite was by a beloved Taos High School teacher named David Gilroy — “The World’s Largest Trout: A Mongolian Expedition.” He created an ambiance that captured the experience of Mongolia through the eyes of an American field biologist. He went so far as to provide the students with native garb, we incensed the room with myrrh, and made a traditional Mongolian tea recipe. He shared funny and heart-warming stories about his work and immersion into a uniquely foreign culture. For the hands-on, we concentrated on calculating species population density. We took away the tables and chairs and created a “fish pond” of students while other participants geared up with makeshift fishing rods baited with marshmallows. They “fished” each other out of the pond, collected data, and used it to make their calculations.
TSCN: In general, what do you like best about your program?
MM: Advising the leadership team, hands down. I’ve always enjoyed working with teens but there’s something original and exciting about this particular generation. The kids I work with are open-minded, service-driven, and inclusive. They continually renew my sense of optimism of what’s possible.
TSCN: As a veteran in our program, what advice do you have to those just starting their own Teen Cafés?
MM: Remember that it’s key to sell the program to your community by demonstrating its unique value. Take advantage of every opportunity to network, hone your “elevator pitch,” collect a lot of business cards, and have a firm handshake. You can have the best teen science café in the country, but if your community doesn’t back the program it’s not necessarily sustainable.
TSCN: Along those lines, we understand that you and your Teen Leaders have been remarkably successful in gaining that community support. Can you tell us something about that?
MM: It’s true, we’ve been very fortunate in garnering support from the community over the first three seasons of Café Scientifique New Mexico, Taos. We’re frequently invited to give radio interviews, present to civic groups, given features in the newspaper, etc. We often collaborate with other non-profits in co-sponsoring events geared toward area teens, everything from STEMArts to computer coding. We’re also very grateful to have received community grants and private donations to augment the Teen Leadership Team’s fundraising efforts and further innovate our program.
I can’t say it enough: network and sell, sell, sell. I get that “selling” has a slimy connotation to some, but not-for-profit organizations are in the same business of selling as everyone else. If you don’t like the term, re-phrase it. I like to say that I’m “demonstrating value.” Have the utmost confidence in your product and keep it simple. The three points I’ve cemented in my head: 1) we offer an invaluable learning experience 2) we offer a safe, fun setting for teens to engage each other, and 3) we offer an opportunity for teens to develop and practice leadership skills. Boom — there’s your sales pitch.
Thanks for the unique perspective, Meghan. Your thoughts on stumbling and demonstrating value are extraordinary, constructive, and significant.