Seeking Undergraduates? Consider Teen Science Cafés

By Michelle Hall, President, Science Education Solutions

The U.S. Department of Labor data predicts that the U.S. workforce will need ~135,000 -180,00 more geoscientists by 2022 (Wilson, 2014, DOL, 2017). This is great news for students in the pipeline, but quite a challenge for our nation, as geoscience enrollments have declined steadily since the 1980’s (Mirsky, 1990; Davis, 2012). This decline has caused geoscience departments to tighten their belts, merge, and even close (Davis, 2012).  Holbrook (1997) studied student motivations in selecting college majors and found that lack of exposure to earth sciences in high school is a major reason for low enrollments in undergraduate geoscience programs.

For decades, the geoscience community has worked diligently to increase both the number of certified earth science teachers in the K-12 system, and the emphasis of earth science content in the K-12 curriculum, e.g. through implementation of the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 1996) and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS, 2012). Additionally, there has been significant outreach to middle and high school students through summer programs. Yet the trend in enrollment has not changed. And, without a game change in our efforts to entice youth into the sciences, we will likely see biologists, chemists, and physicists with limited understanding of Earth filling these positions.

What can be done?
Arthur Mirsky, in his 1990 paper, “Countering The Decline In Geoscience Majors” asked this essential and still relevant question:

“How do we mentor them into the geosciences rather than wait to mentor them after they have chosen the geosciences?”

It may be time to take lessons from the computer science and engineering disciplines, which have worked to get a strong foothold for their curriculum in K-12 over the past several decades.  Leaders of these disciplines created demand for their field by developing creative out-of-school programming nation-wide for kids of all ages. Coding and robotics afterschool programs have proliferated across all demographics in the past decade with focused efforts by STEM experts who are encouraging girls and minorities to embrace these fields.  To make it easier to reach the kids, they partnered with existing out-of-school programs in Scouts, 4-H, libraries, and other organizations. And, their efforts are paying off. Computer science enrollment across the nation is surging due to the pervasiveness of computing in today’s society (CRA, 2017). Engineering is having similar growth, with enrollments up 57% since the recession. Both fields attribute the growth to greater public awareness of the career opportunities.

While the geosciences may not lend itself as easily to the game-like competitions typical in engineering and computer science, we have equally interesting, complex, and dynamic earth systems concepts to engage teens in different kinds of challenges and problem solving.

Recruiting Through Teen Science Cafés
Teen Science Cafés are free, fun, interactive programs that promote exploration, creativity, and habits for life long learning.  Teens are introduced to the latest ideas in science and technology through lively conversations and hands-on activities with scientists, engineers, and inventors in relaxed and social setting.

Apr 13 2016_2557

A graduate student presenter sits in an open space at the teen cafe and has a conversation with the group of teens.

For the past decade, we have been leading teen science cafés to engage teens from all walks of life in conversation and activities with STEM professionals. As geoscientists, we have had our share of wonderful geoscience-focused cafés from the origin of life, geology of Mars, climate-water-energy-land nexus, to the aurora, discovery of human origins, great earthquakes and carbon sequestration, to name a few. The focus on conversations about topics relevant to teens lives and meeting successful people in the field is what makes a teen science café ideal for undergraduate recruitment.

Our research indicates that the participants in our programs gain knowledge and positive attitudes in many areas important to pursuing a STEM career. Through the Teen Science Café Network, there are over 100 Teen Science Café programs nationally and we continue to grow. There could be one in your community. While most programs select topics across all STEM fields, others are themed. Aquaria lead five of the Teen Science Cafés in the Network and their programs focus on ocean chemistry, biology and physics. Two sites focus exclusively on astronomy and three others in rural areas focus on the science and technology underpinning careers as first responders and emergency management. The rural program leaders reasoned that almost every community has need for these skills.

We propose that through teen science cafés, the geoscience community could make real headway with the next generation to embrace geosciences as a career path. Gordon (1995) makes the case that most college freshman are not developmentally ready to choose a major, since as many as 50% enter college undecided and 75% change their major at least once. Students’ understanding of the fields, career opportunities, the nature of the work, and their own interests are all factors in making the career choice. Teens are searching for information and guidance on fruitful career paths and typically seek careers in which they can make a positive change in the world. Demonstrating through teen cafés how geoscientists are improving our world each day could be quite powerful in mentoring teens into the field.

Why do Teen Science Cafés Matter?
Teen Science Cafés have been shown to significantly change teens’ view of the importance of science in their lives, positively influence teens’ understanding of science in the news, increase their ability and confidence to use facts to support scientific points of view, and cause them to consider multiple sides of an issue before making a decision (Hall et al, 2010, Mayhew and Hall, 2010). The café events also positively influenced teens’ interest in science and science careers, and revealed to them the nature of scientific research. Most importantly, they rate meeting a “real” scientist as the best part of the program.

Geoscientists trained to communicate with teens are key to success in engaging teens in our field. Experts present briefly on their work, highlighting big unanswered questions in their field, uncertainties, and implications while engaging teens in conversation and an exploratory activity.

From the alignment of celestial bodies creating the beauty of the 2017 Total Eclipse, to the immense power and destruction of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the M8.1 earthquake in Mexico, and the alarming earthquakes in Oklahoma that could cripple the safety of gas pipelines, and monitoring of the alarming North Korean M6.0 nuclear test that likely emitted radiation into the atmosphere, the geosciences have been at the forefront of the news providing expertise and solutions to address these developments.  There is no shortage of topics to demonstrate how the geosciences are relevant.  These events, occurring over a period of just two weeks, are a reminder of just how dynamic our planet is and of the delicate balance among Earth systems that allow humans to live and thrive. Teen Science Cafés can help youth understand the Earth processes affecting their lives and the opportunities to literally change our planet for the better.

A department might partner with one of more organizations in their surrounding communities—libraries, for example—and engage its faculty, its graduate students—and even its undergraduates—in providing geoscience programming across multiple disciplines to local teens. Besides the internal benefits to the department’s collegiality and the value of establishing connections with community organizations, the impact of such engagement could well be attracting students to the department. The University of Akron is doing just that—using teen science cafés to assist their many undecided STEM majors in choosing a major.

To learn more about Teen Science Cafés:
Visit our Poster: 162-2: Teen Science Cafés: A Model For Addressing Broader Impacts, Diversity, and Recruitment,  Monday, Oct. 23, from 9:30-11:30 a.m. and 4:30-6:30 p.m.

Attend our workshop Teen Science Cafés—Broaden Your Recruiting and Research Impacts, Tuesday, 24 Oct., 12:15-1:15 p.m.  WSCC, Rooms 307/308

Computing Research Association, 2017, Generation CS: Computer Science Undergraduate Enrollments Surge Since 2006.

Davis, Larry E., 2012, Another Geoscience Department ‘Bites the Dust’, The Compass: Earth Science Journal of Sigma Gamma Epsilon, Volume 84 | Issue 2 Article 2, 4-17-2012

Gordon, V. N. (1995), The undecided college student: An academic and career advising challenge (2nd. ed.). Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Hall, M., Foutz, S., and Mayhew, M., 2010, Design and Impacts of a Youth Directed Café Scientifique Program, International Journal of Science Education, Part B: Communication and Public Engagement, DOI: 10.1080/21548455.2012.715780.

Mayhew, M., and Hall, M., Science Communication in a Café Scientifique for High School Teens. Science Communication, 34 (4), 547-555, DOI 10.1177/ 1075547012444790

Holbrook, J., 1997, Career Potential in the Sciences, Geology in the High Schools, and Why Anyone Would Major in Geology Anyway, Palaios 12, 503–504.

Mirsky, A., 1990, Countering The Decline In Geoscience Majors, NAGT 1990 paper –022-1368 NAGT

National Research Council, 1996, National Science Education Standards: Washington, D.C., The National Academies Press, 272 p.

NGSS, 2012, Next Generations Science Standards: For States, By States: Washington, D.C., The National Academies Press, 534 p

Wilson, C., 2014, Status of the Geoscience Workforce: Alexandria, Virginia, American Geosciences Institute, 40 p.

US Department of Labor, 2017, Occupational Outlook Handbook,



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