Unlocking Curiosity with Sharks, Rockets, and Mind Control: STEM Next and Teen Science Cafés Build STEM Skills by Encouraging Discovery


Unlocking Curiosity with Sharks, Rockets, and Mind Control: STEM Next and Teen Science Cafés Build STEM Skills by Encouraging Discovery

Ever wonder what engineers, doctors, and tech gurus do in their free time? In 2021, STEM Next and the Teen Science Café Network joined together to expand the answer to questions like that for students across the country. 

With the support of afterschool educators, teens lead the execution of Teen Science Cafés with STEM experts of greatest student interest. From scientists to medical experts, these STEM presenters give youth insight into their day-to-day professional activities through demonstrations or hands-on experiences. 

“Teen Science Café absolutely influenced my decision to pursue research opportunities in college,” said a Teen Science Alumnus and current college student. “I first started working as a lab assistant and am now conducting research for my thesis.” 

By gathering in an informal setting, STEM professionals leave lasting impressions on students. This blog features three stories of STEM career discovery and inspiration as part of scaled Teen Science Café programming in the U.S. 

South Carolina: It’s All About Sharks

The South Carolina Aquarium held a Teen Science Café all about sharks. 

Using jaws, teeth, and real shark specimens, Biologist Bryan Frazier from the Department of Natural Resources talked about his career with sharks’ biology and anatomy. 

Photo Credit: Teen Science Café

“Learning with someone who was an expert in their field made the science and the idea of becoming a scientist far more tangible for me,” said a 13-year-old girl participating in the program. 

During the Café, Frazier and participating teens dissected one male and one female Atlantic Sharpnose shark. The dissection was displayed on a big screen via a GoPro and students were able to touch parts of the shark to understand more about their anatomy. Students also received Bonnethead Shark stomachs to dissect, and some students found whole blue crabs inside. 

“How can I get more involved in the aquarium?” asked one excited 12-year-old boy. “The coolest part was the baby sharks we found in the uterus of the female Atlantic Sharpnose shark!”

Minnesota: Rocketing Engineers

At the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) Bulldog Rocketry Café, teens learned about the engineering behind making rockets that launch into space. Students assembled real rockets to understand the construction process. 

Rocket launching

Photo Credit: Teen Science Café

“Being able to get my hands on the parts rather than just learning theory was a big game changer for me,” said a 6th-grade girl.

Participants learned more about each part and how the overall assembly plays a role in launching the rockets as high as possible while ensuring they return safely. 

“The highlight of the night, and for many students, the year, was the demonstration of shooting off an actual rocket,” said one educator.

University of South Dakota: Brain Exploration Through Mind Control

Mind control seems like something from superhero movies or science fiction stories. Yet, in Pierre, South Dakota, students quickly learned how possible mind control might be. The South Dakota Discovery Center invited University of South Dakota neuroscience graduate students Eric Graack and Sam Critzer to talk about brains, demonstrate a live-action brain mapping exercise, and answer questions about their research.

student learns about mind control in South Dakotta

Photo credit: Teen Science Café

Beginning with optical illusion icebreakers, teens learned how easily the brain can be manipulated or tricked. Presenters also shared their current research about the importance of staying hydrated, as Sam Critzer shared evidence from his experiments on dehydrated brains. 

“Just knowing these things are out there and I can do them is huge. I come from a lower economic background and this just did not seem possible before,” said a 10th-grade boy from rural South Dakota.


The experiences outlined in this blog were made possible by the partnership between STEM Next and the Teen Science Cafe Network. You can learn more about the work here.  

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