Virtual Junior Science Cafés show middle schoolers the possibilities of STEM learning

One of K–12 teachers’ biggest challenges in the pandemic era is keeping students engaged in virtual learning. Adam Schwartz, who teaches science to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders at Bret Harte Math and Science Magnet Cluster School in Hyde Park, found a surefire tool this fall: Junior Science Cafés.

In these half-hour sessions, graduate students from the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago teach middle schoolers about science and engineering through hands-on activities and share their own personal stories about how they fell in love with science. Each of Schwartz’s classes attended a virtual Junior Science Café in October on topics that included how energy waves can be used to transfer information and how the immune system adapts to respond to new diseases like COVID-19.

The grad students’ enthusiasm, plus their use of kid-friendly props like cell phones and Slinkys to demonstrate scientific concepts, sparked genuine interest among his students, said Schwartz.

“There were students who participated more in the cafés than they ever have in class,” Schwartz added, “students whose voices I rarely hear unless I call on them, and students who never turn on their cameras but did during these sessions.”

Engaging the next generation of scientists

Junior Science Cafés are part of Pritzker Molecular Engineering’s educational outreach work to help students in Chicago Public Schools and South Side communities become scientifically engaged and understand the possibilities for careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), said Laura Rico-Beck, PME’s educational training and outreach coordinator.

“To be at the forefront of creating solutions to global problems, we have to have as many creative, intelligent, collaborative minds at the table as possible—and that means engaging and inviting the next generation of STEM researchers and thinkers.”

The cafés help PME graduate students build skills, too. They all receive training in science communication so they can effectively translate the goals of their research for a wide range of audiences, including other researchers, the general public, and kids like Schwartz’s students. Messaging techniques help the students distill their research into clear language, and improv skills equip them to tailor their presentations on the spot to address the audience’s interests.

Junior Science Cafés were originally offered to students attending field trips to the Museum of Science and Industry, one of PME’s partners.

“We also wanted to use the cafés to build our relationships with neighborhood schools near campus,” said Rico-Beck, “and the best way to do that is to go to classrooms and have one-on-one interactions in the spaces where students are already learning.”

Face-to-face Junior Science Cafés will resume once students return to their school buildings. Until then, virtual events will continue as a way to make remote STEM learning more appealing.

“The grad students’ enthusiasm is great,” said Schwartz. “Even if one of my students isn’t personally interested in a specific topic, seeing someone be effusive about their own work is contagious. And seeing the real-world applications answers the perennial middle-school question: ‘Why do we have to learn this?’”

—Article first appeared on the UChicago Civic Engagement website