The Awesomeness of Teen Science Cafés and Students Embracing STEM Learning Outside of School

Originally published at Education Insider.

Café Scientifique, New Mexico: Up close and personal with the human brain (Photo Credit: ION Teen Science Café)

Exciting environments, where teenagers and adults can get together to collaborate and discuss all things science.

Once the school day is over, it can be difficult to engage students in any kind of STEM Education, especially with the lure of the smart phone and games console. It can be easy for students to switch off once the final bell of the day rings, meaning that so much potential can be left uncultured and therefore go to waste.

Even though, programs like the Boys & Girls Club of America, offer quality after-school and summer STEM activities for students , more still could be done to nurture students’ curiosity and keep them engaged in the core subjects (Tackling the Digital Divide & Closing the Opportunity Gap in STEM Education). Teachers and parents finding creative ways to engage students in STEM after school (even math students are socializing around the idea of having fun math activities after-school by starting Math Circles).

The Teen Science Café (@TeenScienceCafe) is an organization, supported by the National Science Foundation, that does just that, through active learning, helping students to reach their full potential, and embrace their science curiosities with both their peers, as well as leading scientists from a variety of disciplines. The emphasis is on creative collaboration and strong mentorship. Their mission is as follows:

“We are a community of teens and adults creating a space where teens can learn from leading experts about science and technology, changing their world. Teen Cafés are informal, interactive programs that promote exploration, creativity, and life long learning. We support and freely share our expertise with others who would like to start a Teen café.”

The Teen Science Café (founded in 2008 and launched across the pond in England,) had humble beginnings, but with its innovative and informal setting, it soon grew in popularity, spreading throughout the world, with 250 Science Cafés in the US alone, engaging over 15,000 thousand teenagers with science, in a social environment. Take a look at their video presentation (below) explaining their mission and stratospheric growth over the years, and then view part 2 of the video which goes into more detail about how to launch a Teen Science Café.

An example of the success of the Teen Science Café can be seen with the program Café Scientifique New Mexico (@Cafe_NM), which aimed to see if the model would be beneficial to teenagers. Almost instantly the program became popular with teenagers of all backgrounds, offering them a new perspective on science, as well as the chance to bounce ideas off real scientist and technology experts. The informal, social environment, gave the teenagers a fun learning experience that was the perfect complement to the science from the classroom.

The Teen Science Café model from New Mexico has been fine tuned for a number of years, and with the formation of the Teen Science Café Network, others can now set up their own program to engage the teenagers and parents in their area. If a community project is not possible, then there are ways to get teens interacted with science using the internet and social media. For more information and to join a friendly community, contact the Teen Science Café Network.

How to Set Up a Teen Science Café

The key to a successful Teen science café is interaction — allowing teenagers to engage in lively discussions on the hot scientific topics of the moment. The aim is not to lecture students, but to give them a chance to listen to interesting presentations, that will end with a dilemma or problem to be solved, and that will encourage the students to interact with each other, and the presenter.

To start a Teen Science Café, there are some principles that should be adhered to, to ensure that students get the most possible, out of the experience:

  • Teens have a sense of ownership — Students are encouraged to take leadership over sessions, to learn science in a way works for them and to provide feedback on any possible improvements.
  • The café must be engaging and interactive — Passive learning is passé. Active learning is a key principle of the Teen Science Café, and within an informal setting, as opposed to formal passive learning. The common formats of the café include a short presentation followed by a problem-solving exercise; and a longer fully interactive presentation with discussion throughout. This is key to getting students excited about science — discussing ideas, concepts, problems and potential solutions!
  • Relationship and network building — Creating and tapping into a network of schools, colleges and science and technological institutions, is a sure way to improve the success of your Teen Science Café and the projects students take on, as well as ensure its longevity. The aim of any Science Café should be to attract teenagers from all walks of life and abilities, so each program should be advertised broadly, with a ‘welcome to all’ message — helping students to push themselves out of their current social network comfort zone. Utilizing websites and social media will help get the message to a wide audience. Additionally, teen leaders should be encouraged to recruit new members to replace those that leave each year after graduation.
  • Top quality presenters — Once engaging and relevant topics have been chosen, presenters should be carefully selected, and coached in presenting effectively to a teenage audience. A great presenter can make any scientific topic come alive and engage students in active learning and problem solving, in a fun and interactive way. Remember, sky’s the limit! Consider choosing presenters from industries, companies and schools you ordinarily wouldn’t think you could get to present. You’d be surprised how many science professionals would be interested in presenting their work to teenagers (inspiration is a 2-way street!).

For a science café to be a success, there will need to be a dedicated few who are committed to making the project work. But, once the project is up and running, the benefit to STEM students is obvious. Students will see science in a new light, learning how it relates to their own life, how to create a greater understanding and relevance of the topic to their peers, and how to lead an exploratory discussion about science that is both informed and inspiring. With hands on, collaborative, project-based activities and experiments, students will gain a greater appreciation of the subject material, and will possibly develop a lifelong learning behaviors that will enrich their lives!

Additional Information on Teen Science Cafés:

Teen Science Cafés are a great way to increase students’ interests in STEM outside of the more formal school environment. A student’s curiosity can be nurtured into a passion, with the help of leading scientists, opening up a host of future career opportunities


Originally published at blog.iat.com on January 14, 2016.

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