Challenging Popular Perceptions: Teen Science Cafés
In 2011, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) at Grade 8 in science found that only 65% of students performed at or above basic, which denotes just “partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade.1” Interim Director of the National Science Teachers Association Gerry Wheeler stated that the scores were “simply unacceptable.2”
While many factors contribute to performance observed in students, a particular factor is student perception of science as encouraged by popular culture. Simply put, science education, as portrayed in popular media, is far from exciting.
Indeed, when Bella and Edward first converse in the movie adaptation of the initial Twilight installment, they’re in a biology class, and have been charged with the task of separating and labeling the phases of mitosis. The teacher, in a valiant attempt to motivate the students to complete the arduous assignment, offers up a gag prize. The class can be heard groaning and booing. In the first draft of the script, Melissa Rosenberg writes about the students’ apathy and the teacher’s disappointment at their lackluster attitudes. By the final cut, the tongue-in-cheek teacher seems resigned to the understanding that he won’t be able to maintain his students’ interest, and that, if anything, they just need to go through the motions. Against this backdrop, the budding chemistry (no pun intended) between the two leads takes center stage. You can almost hear Kristen Stewart’s character thinking, “This science stuff is so boring, but oh, man, is that vampire hot!”
Granted, teen romance is the center of the Twilight story, and biology class is most certainly not, but the fact remains that young people today are rarely presented with reasons to be excited and curious about science rather than apathetic and dismissive of it. One need only look so far as the “scientist stereotype” to see how science, as a practice, is generally perceived. Scientists are painted as eccentric, kooky, and generally too smart for their own good. The Simpsons’ Professor Frink is a highly educated, bespectacled, buck-toothed man who, despite his many efforts, often only makes crises worse. Doctor Emmett Brown, from the film Back to the Future, is another character that embodies the scientist stereotype perfectly. While he is brilliant, he is also eccentric and irresponsible, having squandered his family’s fortune, made deals with crime lords, and invented a time machine that is responsible for the “almost” destruction of the entire universe as 1985 knows it.
Teens’ understanding of real scientists is also sorely lacking. While most young people recognize the name of Albert Einstein, and perhaps even his most famous equation, e=mc2, few understand what it means, and how integral it has been to our understanding of the universe. Rather, when discussing Einstein, people often highlight his social ineptitudes and his “mad scientist” persona, exemplified by the famous photograph of him sticking out his tongue for the camera.
So how do we resolve this issue? How can we encourage a reimagining of how science is perceived and understood by teens such that they are inspired rather than discouraged? Of course, we must strive, as professionals, to make the classroom a productive space, and to ensure that students are getting the most out of that precious little time they spend on applied science learning. But beyond that, we need to make science an accessible discipline. Rather than presenting science as a set of mundane tasks to be completed, we should show science as it truly is: a many-faceted, dynamic, evolving area of human endeavor.
In California, Art and Alfia Wallace have started the Marin Science Seminar, targeting students in the San Rafael school district and using the Science Café model to help answer students’ questions about science and the people who practice it.
In New Mexico, Project Director Michelle Hall is using the Science Café model to work with teens in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Española/Pojoaque, and Los Alamos. The program is specifically intended for, and run by, high schoolers. Young people in each of the four participating cities volunteer their time to help organize and hold events that keep the program exciting and relevant.
One of the salient benefits of these programs is that they provide participating teens the opportunity to experience scientific discourse not colored by stereotypes and character-driven facades. Rather, teens are exposed to real science, real scientists, and are encouraged to explore how science truly relates to daily life. Furthermore, Science Café attendees can also, if they so choose, take up leadership roles. The potential positive outcomes of such participation are so great for young people that it’s a wonder more Science Café teen programs have yet to pop up in the network.
Sciencecafes.org, produced by NOVA scienceNOW and overseen by NOVA Education, hosts a national network of more than 275 Science Cafés. In our capacity as Science Café organizers and supporters, we are often asked how an adult learning model such as that of the Science Café community can be translated to serve effectively for a different demographic set. How complicated it must be, people think, to take something designed for adults and make it accessible to teens. Truly though, it’s not quite so difficult as some might suppose. One of the strengths of the Science Café model is that it is flexible, and can be molded to whatever parameters the organizer deems necessary for the café’s success. Models such as the two series mentioned above are living proof of the potential power of that flexibility.
We want to do our part to encourage the creation and expansion of such programs. If you have interest in starting a program for teens, or if you know of a program near you that could use the support of the Science Café network, or even if you want to share with us a success story having to do with a great café experience, please visit sciencecafes.org, and contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will be happy to provide you with as many resources as possible to help make your program a success.