January 2013

A Café Scientifique program for teens

How do you capture the attention of teenagers in an age of Facebook, YouTube and iPhones? Given the scientific and technical underpinnings of these 21st century phenomena, it would seem self-evident that science would naturally appeal to teenage minds. Unfortunately, experience shows that teenagers have a limited interest in, and understanding of, the nature of science and the fruits it bears beyond what they learn in school. As scientists and educators, we were motivated to reignite interest in science among teenage audiences by rekindling their curiosity and ability to ask, “Why?” Our solution was to found a science café program for teenagers: Café Scientifique New Mexico.

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In 2007, we attended a presentation by Duncan Dallas, an Englishman who had initiated the Café Scientifique model for engaging the lay public in dialogue on science topics. At the time, these programs were rapidly proliferating across North America and elsewhere in the world because of their great success in bringing scientific concepts to the general public. The concept of hosting an informal (but legitimate) scientific presentation while allowing for socializing with peers over refreshments made the Café Scientifique model extremely popular with adults. Listening to the presentation, we were struck by an exciting thought: Could we successfully adapt the Café Scientifique model to serve teens?

Thus was born the Café Scientifique New Mexico. After obtaining funding from the National Science Foundation, we started up the program in 2008 in four host towns of diverse character in northern New Mexico: Los Alamos, Española, Santa Fe and Albuquerque. We began our work with some trepidation: What if we built it and they didn’t come? Thankfully, the program has been successful well beyond our initial hopes, proving highly popular with teens as it enters its sixth season. We now have a well-tested and refined model for teen cafés, and as a result we have just received further funding from the NSF to propagate the model at partner sites throughout the United States.

Elements for success
Any organization should be able to start up and operate a teen program by adhering to a number of essential principles:

  • • Teen leadership and ownership: We regard this as one of the key secrets of success. The teens need to feel that it is their program. By building a strong cadre of youth leaders who both guide and help implement programming, the teen cafés have been able to maintain high levels of success.
  • • Presentations: A Café Scientifique program for teens cannot be a lecture series. Sessions need to be highly interactive, must engage teens directly, and have to be pitched at teens’ level and stimulate their curiosity. Scientists are vetted and subjected to a practice run with youth leaders before giving their presentations.
  • • Institutional relationships: It is important to develop relationships with a range of institutions that encourage their scientists to participate and to develop personal relationships with individual scientists within these organizations. It is by word of mouth that we get our best referrals of skilled public speakers.
  • • Local hero: A teen café program will require significant organizational and logistical support. There is no substitute for a local hero with the energy and commitment to make the program work smoothly.
  • • Teachers: Relationships with teachers in the high schools are highly beneficial. Teachers can champion the program with their students and encourage them to attend café sessions, while some may allow presentations about the program in their classrooms.
  • • Good venues: The venue must be centrally located and easy to get to. It must be conducive to social interaction and discussion, movement among groups and hands-on activities. Schools are generally to be avoided; teens typically enjoy learning about a science topic so long as it is in an out-of-school setting.
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Everyone benefits
Our goals for Café Scientifique New Mexico were for teens to

  • • acquire a richer, more nuanced understanding of the nature of science,
  • • come to see scientists as real people leading interesting lives,
  • • get a better appreciation of the relevance of science to their daily lives,
  • • acquire increased science literacy concerning current issues in science,
  • • consider the possibility of a life in science for themselves, and
  • • develop skills and attitudes for lifelong learning in science.

Our formal evaluations demonstrate that the program has indeed met these goals, positively influencing participating teens’ attitudes toward science and their view of the importance of science to their lives. It has increased their understanding of the nature of scientific research, understanding of science issues in the news, and ability to use facts to support scientific points of view. Moreover, teens themselves say that the program has helped them make connections between school and the real world of science research. “Since the Café, I see science everywhere, at the store, on the street, in the park,” reported one attendee.

There also has been significant benefit to the presenters, who have uniformly considered their participation in the program to be enjoyable and of personal benefit. One presenter told us that preparing his presentation “forced me to focus on the really basic elements of my research and how to communicate them.” Similarly, another felt participating had helped her to “identify the critical issues in my work: why I was doing it, why it is challenging, what we are trying to accomplish.”

Best of all, the Teen Café Scientifique program continually renews our own curiosity and keeps us wondering about the nature of so many interesting things.

Photo of Michelle HallPhoto of Michael MayhewMichelle Hall (hall@scieds.com) and Michael Mayhew (m2mayhew@gmail.com) are the directors of Café Scientifique New Mexico (cafenm.org) and the Teen Science Café Network at Science Education Solutions (scieds.com)in Los Alamos, N.M.

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