By REBECCA ISENHART
SCHENECTADY — Zombies, space colonization, forensic crime scene investigation and artificial intelligence: If students planned their own curriculum, these topics might fill the pages of science textbooks in classrooms everywhere.
At miSci, the museum of innovation and science in Schenectady, that’s exactly the plan.
MiSci is one of several museums across the country to plan a series of Teen Science Cafes, informal and engaging science sessions planned entirely by students.
Howard Hart, a Niskayuna resident who sits on the miSci board of trustees, brought the idea to the board after reading an article in Science magazine about a dozen successful teen cafes that already had been established across the country. The teen cafes, he learned, were modeled after a successful program for adults that spread across France and England in the 1990s.
“The key to their success was making science available to interested adults in informal, nonacademic surroundings, such as a cafe or pub, with an expert in a field of interest introducing a topic in his field and then leading an informal discussion of the topic,” Hart said in an email.
For teens, this translates to a comfortable space and plenty of pizza. His fellow board members were supportive; the idea just needed funding.
After receiving a $3,000 grant from the National Science Foundation earlier this year, the board, along with miSci director Mac Sudduth, has enlisted several Capital Region teens to help prepare for the event series, scheduled to kick off in the fall.
“When kids get to be 12, 13, there’s so much going on in their lives. Museums, whether art or science, don’t do very well with providing stuff to attract them,” Sudduth said. “We do know from experience that there’s a subgroup of kids who are really into science that are just looking for things to do.”
In addition to letting teens do the planning, they’ll also help shape the marketing. Sudduth predicted the bulk of outreach would occur via social media.
Darius Irani, a student at Niskayuna High School and dedicated miSci volunteer, chairs the student committee. He said the event series has already begun to take shape.
“Generally a normal session would include kind of presentation by a scientist or specialist we call in, and we’ll have refreshments and then we’ll have questions and an activity,” he said.
Though planning is in the early stages, the group has already decided to hold between eight and nine sessions during evenings throughout the coming academic year.
Sudduth said in addition to brainstorming topics and planning outreach, the committee will also have the opportunity to vet presenters.
“Talking to teenagers is probably not the same as giving a scientific paper, so part of their job is to bring the person in for, sort of like a tryout, to try to better tailor the talk to what the teenagers are going to ask them,” he said.
Sudduth hopes the cafes will foster communication in both directions. “We know all the really great scientists and inventors were really great communicators,” he said. “That’s an important skill for any scientist or engineer.”
But if Irani is any indication, the students involved in the Teen Science Cafes have no trouble expressing their passion for learning.
“I love quantum mechanics and astronomy,” said Irani, who is fascinated by the concept of an eventual first colony of people on Mars who will go there and never come back.
But what excited him most was finding the freedom and support to pursue a wide variety of scientific interests.
“Probably the most interesting thing is, we have full control,” Irani said. “We have full responsibility for this and it’s something that not everybody gets the opportunity to do.”