By Michelle Hall, President, Science Education Solutions

In our previous post, we posited that it is time to “mentor teens into the geosciences rather than wait to mentor them after they have chosen the geosciences.” We proposed that teen science cafés serving high school or undecided undergraduate students are an ideal mechanism for a geoscience department to begin the work of recruiting and mentoring future geoscientists. In this post we explore more deeply how geoscience-themed teen science cafés can address broader impacts, potentially increase undergraduate enrollments and diversity, and build stronger relationships with employers, local alumni, and surrounding communities.

The Teen Science Café Network (TSCN) supports more than 100 teen science café programs that have sprung up across the U.S., from rural towns to major cities. These programs provide the opportunity for teens to engage with STEM professionals, talk about science and technology affecting their lives, learn about the wide variety of career paths in science, and to see the passion scientists have for the work they do. The TSCN provides mentoring and resources, including small grants to help organizations get started with, and then maintain, successful teen science café programs.

The programs are held locally and led by a group of teen leaders with the help of an adult mentor.  The teen leaders recommend topics of interest. They plan, market, and carry out the events. They provide feedback to the presenter to help them focus their topic on things teens can relate to and understand. And they help develop an engaging hands-on activity and discussion questions. The adult leader/mentor could be a faculty member, post-doc, or graduate student within an academic department.

Geologist Laura Grace Beckerman chats with a student after the cafe copy 2
Geologist Laura Grace Beckerman talking to a teen after her cafe presentation on Mars geology

The Value of Teen Science Cafés to Geoscience Departments
Teen science café programs can offer geoscience departments a substantive, low cost way to meet the challenges that many face: finding ways to increase enrollment, helping faculty satisfy broader impacts requirements, improving faculty and graduate students’ skills in effectively communicating their science to the public, and developing stronger connections with surrounding communities and employers. Below, we discuss how a teen science café program could help with each of these.

Increasing Enrollment
As noted in our previous post, enrollments in geoscience departments are declining even though demand for geoscientists is increasing at rates faster than the average in STEM fields (Wilson, 2014, DOL, 2017). One of the primary reasons is that too few high school students are exposed to the geosciences and do not think about geosciences as a possible career pathway in college. To counter this effect, a teen science café program can open the eyes and minds of curious teens to the geoscientists. Our research shows that the top reason for attending a teen café is to meet a “real” scientist, and this is not very surprising, as scientists constitute less than 3% of the U.S. population. Our research also shows that teen science café programs increase teens understanding of the nature of science and their interest in STEM careers (Hall et. al., 2010). Teens want to know about current research as well as the lives of scientists and the pathway that led them into the work they do. Making these personal connections with teens is a tremendous way to recruit the best and brightest to your department and may lead to summer internships or other opportunities for the teens to further explore the geosciences.

Recruiting of teens to attend the program is easy with the help of science teachers in local high schools.  A department might host a program on campus. Alternatively, it might partner with one or more organizations in their surrounding communities that are already serving teens—libraries, museums, or 4-H clubs, for example. The department would engage its faculty, alumni, and its graduate students in providing presenters and hands on activities, while the local organization would host the event and recruit the teens.

Broadening Diversity
Teen science café programs are local, which makes it easier to target and tailor programs for different communities.  Some communities may have a strong earth science program in the schools, while others will not. Making adjustments may be needed, but the most important thing is showing them the value, impact, excitement of being a scientist.

For the past decade, the authors have implemented teen science cafés in a range of socio-economically diverse communities, from small towns to large cities. We have run programs in communities predominantly populated by Native American and Hispanic teens, as well as communities of mixed ethnicities. In each community we have had documented success in helping teens see themselves as future scientists (Hall et. al, 2010).

Broader Impacts and Improved Communication Skills
Two of the six Core Design Principles of the Teen Science Café Network are that 1) the programs are highly engaging and interactive and 2) presenters are vetted and coached to engage with the teen audience.  To facilitate this, we have scientists write their story of the twists and turns of their pathway to becoming a scientist from childhood. We ask the scientist to reflect on what they were like as a teen. We have the scientist do a dry run of his or her presentation with the teens. The teens help the scientist focus the topic on things they find interesting and relevant. The teens also go through the hands-on activity with the scientist to help him or her identify any potential logistics issues that need to be addressed ahead of time. And teens can suggest questions they are interested in for discussion. Our evaluations show that presenters rate the dry run as essential to having a successful experience. Our presenters also report that the communication skills learned from preparing for a teen café have positive impacts on their courses, proposal writing, presentations to administrators and program officers, and even on their perspective on their own research (Sickler and Cherry, 2017).

Building and Maintaining Connections with Employers and Alumni
High quality, meaningful careers are the reason parents urge their children to go to college. Many faculty members have spent their entire career as an academic, which often puts them at a disadvantage when counseling students on employment prospects other than academia. Yet, most undergraduate and graduate students do not wish to remain in academia, and approximately 40% of new physical science PhDs had no employment commitment when finishing their degree (NSF, 2015).

Teen science cafés provide an opportunity for departments to reach out to the larger community of geoscience alumni and other geoscientists working in a myriad of organizations from local, state, or federal government, energy, and environmental solutions, to water resources, policy, insurance, flood and land management, agriculture and the many other careers in which geoscientists prosper.  Making these connections outside of academia will give your students advantages when seeking employment after graduation and may also influence how you prepare and advise students for the workforce.

Seeking Geoscience Departments Interested in Using Teen Science Cafés for Recruitment and Retention of Majors
We envision that a participating department would join the Teen Science Café Network as a member. You or a colleague would act as the “adult leader” who would recruit and then mentor a group of local high school teens who wish to be teen leaders; the teen leaders would be challenged to take charge of all aspects of their program, with the adult leader providing support in the background. The adult leader would also recruit presenters on teen–relevant topical areas of the geosciences, from within the department and possibly from neighboring organizations. We provide small start-up grants to new members.

For more detail on the concept, please the see the abstract below of a poster we will be giving at the upcoming GSA meeting. You can also find a previous post on this subject here on the GSA’s Speaking of Geoscience blog

For more information about the teen café program itself, visit the TSCN website, especially the “Getting Started” section.

Please let us know if this piques your interest and you would like to explore the possibility of your participation with us.

And if you will be attending the GSA meeting, come to our poster and/or a lunch-time workshop:

Visit our Poster: Monday Oct 23, 162-2: Teen Science Cafés: A Model for Addressing Broader Impacts, Diversity, and Recruitment, from 9:30-11:30 am and 4:30-6:30pm

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

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.

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.

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

NSF, Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2015,

Sickler and Cherry, 2017, Impact of Teen Science Cafés on Scientists: Phase 1 Report,

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

US Department of Labor, 2017, Occupational Outlook Handbook,