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Teen Science Cafés: Teens and STEM experts exploring our world together

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Teen Science Cafés: Teens and STEM experts exploring our world together

Photo courtesy of Louisa Otto, Sanford PROMISE Teen Science Café.

By Katey Ahmann, Director of Teen Science Café Network and Kristin Bayans, Manager of Network Engagement at Teen Science Café Network. This blog is part of the Afterschool Alliance's Collective for Youth Empowerment in STEM & Society (CYESS) initiative. This series of blogs highlights examples of programs working at the  intersection of STEM and civic engagement. We are excited to showcase  the systemic change young people can make in their communities when  their afterschool programs support them to layer action onto their STEM  learning. If you would like to know more or submit a blog about your  youth action program, please contact us.

Teen Science Cafés (TSC) are free out-of-school programs connecting teens to STEM experts who share their real-world science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) career pathways through in-depth, hands-on science explorations and personal storytelling. The TSC method promotes meaningful interactions between teens and STEM experts and offers opportunities for young people to see visiting experts as role models, while also learning how these experts work with STEM to solve real-world challenges. These authentic interactions and discussions happen within informal and accessible settings and promote an understanding of science and technology that is rarely possible in traditional classrooms. This NSF-funded program has been consistently evaluated throughout its sixteen year lifespan, and evaluations have shown that youth who have participated in TSC programs often pursue STEM studies and careers, join in science-related lifelong learning, and think more critically about science issues.

“I think they’ve definitely opened my eyes to a lot more careers than I thought were out there for me. And they’ve given me a lot of information on stuff I would never have had the opportunity to learn about or to even just see,” said a teen participant in TSC.

TSC programs include an expert presentation, activities related to the STEM topic, and snacks or a light meal. TSCs usually occur about once a month and are hosted by various public or private educational organizations such as museums, libraries, nature centers, afterschool facilities, and universities. These programs are as unique as their communities. A café might focus on one aspect of STEM, like marine science; appeal to a specific demographic, such as female-identified teens; take a cultural-specific lens to their programming, such as native foodways; or be a hybrid in-person and virtual program due to their rural location.

Teens are the backbone of cafés and take on significant duties. TSCs are generally led by a small leadership cohort of teens working with an adult café facilitator. The cohort’s duties include choosing café topics, researching STEM experts, helping experts hone their activity or presentation for the café’s teen audience, welcoming guests to the café, and recruiting their peers to attend.

TSCs are easy to start (often dovetailing with existing teen programming) and no prior experience with STEM is needed. TSC Guides shepherd adult facilitators through the process of beginning a café with free one-on-one and group learning sessions, professional development webinars, asynchronous learning modules, and the development of a café implementation plan or roadmap for each program. Guides also support new adult facilitators through their first three cafés, after which the program becomes a member of the Teen Science Café Network (TSCN) and a part of a quickly expanding constellation of 46 active café programs running nationwide, with 20 more in development.

TSCN membership status is free and comes with benefits such as an annual community gathering and forthcoming affinity groups. If you want to start a teen science café program in your area, please get in touch with Katey Ahmann, Director of TSCN, at katey@scieds.com or sign up for our next information session.

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