Checklist for Starting a Teen Café Scientifique Program

On the basis of our experience with Café Scientifique New Mexico over the past five years, we offer guidance to those who might wish to organize their own teen Café Scientifique program. We hope that it will prove helpful.

Each of the section titles below is a link to a checklist of the most important things to consider.

Before You Start

Establish your program goals. It is helpful to start with explicit program goals and revisit them regularly to see whether the program is achieving them; these might include any or all of:

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

Know and implement the essential ingredients of a successful Café program. These include:

  • Teens need to have a sense of ownership of the program to a maximal degree.
  • Café scientists must be well-vetted for their communication and interpersonal skills and then coached to communicate effectively with teens specifically.
  • The program must have a committed “local hero” with the energy to make the Cafés a success.
  • Interactivity and active learning is crucial for achieving impact with teens.
  • Relationships with institutions that encourage their scientists to participate are essential.

Set up a budget. The main costs are in staff time, venue rental, and food. However, there are ways to keep all of these at a minimum or free.

Staff time is the most difficult to estimate and will depend on whether your organization already has a strong connection to a teen audience, a source of high quality presenters, and knowledge and access to resources that might supplement a presentation with an activity. These are the major variables in the time required. If your organization does not have the above connections and resources, the staff time to build them could be large initially, but then decreases significantly after the first year. The actual time involved in hosting the Café and supporting the TLT activities is on the order of 6-8 hours per Café.

Room rental charges can be free to expensive. We have found that many venues will waive room rental charges, because organizations see the program as an asset that supports their community, scientific or educational mission. Look for space that typically is not used in the evening, like research parks, corporations, and colleges. Commit to always leave the venue clean so the host site has no added costs for cleaning.

Food costs run at about $2-3 per teen, but can be much less if only chips and drinks are served, for example. The more teens that attend, the lower the cost per teen, if you buy in bulk. However, some venues may require that all food is purchased through their in- house caterer, which typically increased costs to as much as $10-12 per person.

Additional costs might include a small honorarium (~$50) for the presenter, though adult Café programs do not offer these. Transportation costs or car pool subsidies for teens could be offered, if funds are available, and the distance traveled warrants it. This might add $30-$40 per meeting to the cost of a larger Café program.

Getting Started: Building a Marketing and Recruiting Network

Connect with your local high schools. Among the diverse elements that will make up your network, teachers—especially science teachers—are of special importance. Gain their support, and they will actively promote your program and encourage their students to attend. Teen Cafés make science learned in the classroom come alive and have real-world relevance; this idea plays well with teachers.

Make contact with a school’s science chair and organize a meeting with the science teachers at which you can pitch your teen Café program and ask for their support. Bring bagels to a pre-school breakfast or pizza to a lunch meeting.

Communicate regularly with the teachers about upcoming Cafés and ask that they promote attendance with their classes. Most teachers will also be happy to post flyers and posters in their classrooms.

Connect with your local out of school programs such as teen centers, robotics and environmental clubs and other STEM related groups. Café topics may tie to the interests of participants in these groups and provide a win-win opportunity for partnerships.

Communicate regularly with the leaders of these other programs about the Café events and provide opportunities in the Café to support their mission where possible.

Establish contacts in local organizations with a science mission. You may draw Café presenters from a variety of organizations: academic departments, national labs, government agencies, technology businesses. It is of great value to find an individual within each such organization that can get excited about your program and be willing to help you locate good presenters within it. In time, your network will expand to include all the scientists you are able to recruit as presenters and they in turn will help you find other good presenters.

Seek out contacts in other organizations. Take opportunities to expand your network beyond the schools and science organizations. Local businesses may be persuaded to provide support or an especially good venue for your Cafés. Media outlets such as local newspapers and radio and TV stations may be willing to announce your Café sessions. Establishing a personal relationship with a key person in such organizations is the secret of success. News organizations may also have suggestions on local STEM experts who provide particularly good interviews and presentations.

Search for good venues. The venue for your Cafés is very important. It 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. Having moveable tables is optimal; theater style seating is not. Poor acoustics or lack of a proper audio-visual system in a large meeting can invite unrest.

You may well be able to find venues like non-profits, local colleges, businesses, and places of worship with a large meeting space that will allow you to use it at low or no cost. Avoid the typical school classroom because then the Café... well... feels like school. Teens typically enjoy learning about a science topic, so long as it is in an informal social setting.

Engage parents. It is important to have supportive parents, so engage with them whenever the opportunity arises. They may drop their teens off at a Café meeting or they may call you up to find out if the program is suitable for their children.

Include parents in distribution lists (email; tweet, Facebook page) that you use to announce upcoming Café sessions; they are likely to then remind their kids to attend.

If You Build It Will They Come?

Go into the schools. This is the best place to spark teen interest in your Café program. Early in the school year, having made contact with the high school science teachers, ask them to arrange a meeting with their students, perhaps over lunch hour.

If possible, conduct a short “mini-Café” on a topic familiar to you so that kids can get a sense of a typical Café.

Use the opportunity to recruit students interested in being on the program’s teen leadership team. You may be surprised at how many teens seize on this opportunity. Get the name, phone number, and email address of those who express interest. Start an email alias for teen leaders.

It is quite useful to make acquaintance with the school principal and the front office staff as well so they know about the program and its benefits to their students.

Seek out other teen-serving organizations. Look for opportunities to make a similar pitch at other organizations serving high school age teens, such as teen centers, YMCAs, and extra-curricular programs.

Advertise widely. There are many ways to advertise your program in general and upcoming Café sessions in particular that you can take advantage of.

Once you have presenters and topics identified and scheduled for a semester or year, make up a poster and ask that it be displayed in school hallways and classrooms and in other venues where teens congregate. Local businesses and other organizations that serve teens may be willing to post them as well, thus reaching parents.

Make up colorful, provocative flyers announcing an upcoming Café meeting; arrange for them to be posted in school a couple days in advance. This is a good job for the teen leaders, but you will have to get the flyers into their hands. The flyers can be posted in other venues as well.

Ask the school to announce the Café meeting during morning announcements. Often sports announcers will be willing to make a similar announcement during halftime at sporting events. Some schools post announcements on a marquee sign in front of the school; this is another opportunity.

Local media outlets may also be willing to pitch your program at no cost. Local newspapers are often hungry for colorful stories about interesting programs in the community.

During Café sessions, get teens to fill out sign-in cards with their email addresses and phone numbers; have a drawing for a door prize as incentive. Accumulate a contact list that can then be used to remind kids about upcoming Cafés. Establish a Facebook page and use it similarly.

Meet with teen leaders. Once you have recruited a group of teen leaders in a high school, arrange to meet with them over lunch or after school to explain what to expect of their involvement and how it can benefit them; this will solidify their commitment. Ask them to inquire of their friends about possible interest in the program and being a teen leader.

Teen Leadership Teams

Hold a retreat. If at all possible, organize a one day retreat for the teen leaders you have recruited. This allows them to get to know one another and start to develop some sense of themselves as cohorts. Some leadership training can be included, as can exercises designed to elicit their input on what the Café sessions should be like. Ask for their input on science topics they think would make for good future Cafés, and strive to honor it.

The main purpose of the retreat is to set clear expectations of the teen leaders for the season ahead. Clear expectation will set the tone for the teen leadership for the whole season. Teen leaders’ responsibilities can include the following:

  • They arrive early to help set up a food table (with food provided by the adult leader).
  • Another group sets up a “welcome” table where arriving teens sign in and receive information about the evenings' presentation and presenter.
  • One teen leader introduces the presenter, including a brief bio.
  • During the presentation, a teen leader might operate a video camera. Others might take photos that can be posted on a program website.
  • At the close of the presentation, a teen leader thanks the speaker, presents a small gift (like a coffee mug), helps the presenter draw for the door prize, and then announces the next Café meeting.
  • At the end, the teen leaders pack up the equipment and clean up the venue.
  • Throughout the meeting, teen leaders model good behavior.

Meet with teen leaders regularly. Meet with your teen leaders as often as you have Cafés. As a practical matter, meetings might have to take place following the evening Café sessions.

Ask them how the session went, where there were issues, and what improvements might be warranted. Remind them about preparations for the next Café. You might allow them to recommend a menu for the food table. Remind them to talk up the program and be prepared to post flyers in their schools and elsewhere, remind their teachers to announce the session, and in general to do what they can to promote attendance.

Determine who will do the introduction at the next session and provide him or her with the presenter’s bio so that they can prepare the introduction.

These brief meetings can maintain the teen leaders’ sense of purpose and camaraderie.

Recruiting Café Presenters

Develop a list of potential topics. The teen leaders will be eager to tell you what topics they think would be interesting in a Café, so poll their interest as you begin the recruiting process for an upcoming season. The teens do not know the universe of interesting science, and you may not be able to find a scientist who is available to present on a particular topic. And a great presenter can make an obscure topic come alive, while a poor presenter can make the most interesting topic seem boring. But if you try to satisfy the teens’ wishes, you are likely to have some success. This reinforces the teens’ sense of ownership of their program.

Ask around. Ask contacts in organizations where you have developed contacts for recommendations on colleagues who are doing some particularly interesting research and have given successful public talks. An organization’s public relations office can be a good source of information about skilled presenters. Make further inquiries about the skills of likely presenters that have been recommended to you.

Conduct a background check on potential presenters. Having gotten a recommendation, it is wise to thoroughly vet that potential presenter as best you can. Seek out others who have heard the person present. Visit his or her website, which will often give you a strong impression about whether he or she is what you are looking for in your teen Café.

Make your approach to potential presenters. This may take the form of a first email. Explain the nature of your teen Café program and say that the person has been recommended to you as someone who might conduct an interesting Café on such and such a topic. Point out up front the importance of a high degree of interactivity in communicating with the teen audience and the desirability of some kind of active learning resource. Ask whether this scientist is interested and feels that he or she can adapt a presentation for your particular audience. If all goes well, extend a formal invitation; you will find most presenters eager to participate.

Preparing Café Presenters

Establish clear expectations from the beginning. It is often a challenge to get the scientists to give presentations appropriate for the teens and the informal setting, as opposed to what they are used to: one-way presentations to peers at a professional society meeting or a public lecture.

In contrast, interactivity is one of the most important ingredients of a teen Café. In a Café presentation, communication—meaning two-way verbal interaction, supported by a few key graphics—is of the essence. The presentation needs to be free of jargon and delivered in an engaging manner at an entry level so that teens will be pulled in and have a chance to develop some new mental images. It is best to organize the presentation around one essential provocative concept that is accessible enough to the teens that they can engage in discussion of it.

Provide written guidance. It is of value to provide the presenter with some written guidelines and urge them to read it. Café Scientifique New Mexico uses this document: Guidelines for Café Presenters. In our program we ask presenters to write a one-page essay on their topic as they present it and a highly personalized bio, and the Guidelines document provides advise to the presenters on how to craft these pages. Their main value is in painting for the teens a picture of a real person having an interesting life doing science.

Meet for coffee. If at all possible, meet with the presenter and talk over the presentation. This face-to-face conversation is of great value in shaping the presenter’s expectations and the presentation’s content, while often relieving the presenter of some initial trepidation.

Help presenters develop hands-on activities or other means to increase interactivity. Teens engage best if they are able to do something. Encourage presenters to increase interactivity and engagement with the teens by bringing some hands-on kind of activity. Some presenter will already have a suitable activity. Others you might need to work with to brainstorm ideas for their specific presentation.

Organize a dry run. It is important—and arguably essential—for presenters to do a dry run with a small group of teens before presenting to a full house. You will find that this is exceedingly valuable in getting the presentations pitched at the right level and the graphics comprehensible. It also serves to overcome a certain intimidation factor for many presenters concerning the prospect of presenting before an unfamiliar audience. And, it ensures the presenter prepares sufficiently early enough to give a high quality presentation. Provide feedback gathered from the teens after the presentation to the presenter, so they can improve their presentation over time.

Post-season Activities

Communicate with presenters. It is of value to send some form of post-season thank you letter to your presenters and show them the whole list of the season’s Cafés. You will find that most of your presenters become invested in your program and will prove helpful to you in the future. It is good to nurture among your presenters a sense of being a member of a cohort that has had your teen Café experience.

You might take the opportunity to include a brief questionnaire soliciting some feedback from the presenters concerning their experience and recommendations for improvements. Café Scientifique New Mexico has used this questionnaire, and has received wonderful feedback.

Organize a special post-season meeting with the teen leaders. Another valuable form of thank you is to organize a post-season social with your teen leaders. Take them for pizza or take them bowling, whatever. This will solidify their sense of being part of an important and well-appreciated team and get them set for next season. Take the opportunity to ask them to recruit others to the teen leadership team between seasons.

You will be losing seniors who graduate, but try and keep in touch with them, as they may prove to be a valuable resource in the future.

Ask presenters to recommend other presenters. It is wise to start your recruitment for next season early. The best place to start is with a request for recommendations sent to previous presenters.

Organize a retreat of teen leaders. Shortly before school starts, organize another one-day weekend retreat for teen leaders. This will re-set expectations for—and the tone throughout—the coming season.

Advertise the coming season. As the school year begins, again proactively advertise the coming season of your teen Café.

Promoting Teens' Learning in the Café Scientifique Program

Over time, our teen program has evolved to incorporate a variety of formats and programming to engage, excite, and stimulate learning about science. We prepared a short document describing a number of scenarios that have played out in our program and demonstrate how they align with the Six Strands of Learning in Informal Environments.

Hall, M., Addressing the Strands of Learning in a Teen Science Café (pdf 61kB)

What Impacts Might Be Expected From the Café Program on Teens’ Attitudes and Understanding of STEM, STEM Careers, and Scientists?

Please see our Café Scientifique Summative Report


Mayhew, M., and Hall, M., Science Communication in a Café Scientifique for High School Teens. [published in Science Communication, 34 (4), 547-555, DOI 10.1177/ 1075547012444790] (pdf 129kB)

Science Communication in a Café Scientifique for High School Teens [longer unpublished version] (pdf 172kB)

Hall, M., Foutz, S., and Mayhew, M., 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.

Theoretical Framework and Model for Implementing the Teen Café Scientifique (pdf 114kB)

Guide to Starting a Teen Café Scientifique