The digital publication of the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC)

From Fires to Floods: Science centers, natural disasters, and Teen Science Cafés

Jan Mokros

Jan Mokros

Jan Mokros (jmokros@scieds.com) is a scientist and STEM educator at Science Education Solutions (SCIEDS) in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Michelle Hall

Michelle Hall

Michelle Hall (hall@scieds.com) founded SCIEDS and helped establish the Teen Science Café Network, which now has 130 members.

Michael Mayhew

Michael Mayhew

Michael Mayhew (m2mayhew@gmail.com) helped establish and continues to nurture the Teen Science Café Network, which now has 130 members.

Jacob Sagrans

Jacob Sagrans

Jacob Sagrans (sagransj@gmail.com) is a scientist and STEM educator at SCIEDS.

As the ongoing pandemic is showing, STEM disciplines are vital to figuring out ways of coping with a range of disasters. There’s no better time than the present to capitalize on youth interest in increasingly common natural disasters and the technology used to address them. Science centers have been playing a significant role by connecting scientists with teenagers and other members of their local communities. But there is one group that remains nearly hidden: science practitioners such as technicians, data wranglers, and engineers working in jobs that involve preventing, mitigating, and responding to disasters. These people, who often do not hold an advanced degree, are a vital part of the workforce but are often all but invisible to teens. Youth need structures and opportunities for learning about a range of STEM career pathways, including those that enable practitioners to address critical needs without going to graduate school for years. Teen Science Cafés are helping to fill that need.

Who are the STEM people who serve us in disasters, such as when hurricanes, flash floods, wildfires, or epidemics strike? These practitioners are often masters of rapidly emerging technology, and teens need to know about their work and the skills that are required to do it. Because young people will eventually be responsible for responding to increasingly severe disasters linked to climate change, it’s critical that we break down the silos between teens and the growing range of technical workers who serve our communities.

Most teens don’t ever learn about the role STEM skills play in developing and responding to disasters. They may be unaware of the professions of their neighbors, including those who are deeply engaged in “humanitarian technology” or other STEM work in the service of their communities.

By sponsoring innovative Teen Science Cafés, science centers can provide just such opportunities. Through a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), the Teen Science Café Network held more than two dozen cafés from 2018 to 2020 focusing on the scientific and technological work involved in addressing hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires, and even avalanches. Many of these cafés were held in science centers, which are ideal venues for bringing together teens and technical/scientific workers, who can highlight career pathways, share compelling stories about their work, and safely demonstrate and share with the teens the sophisticated tools they use on the job. These science practitioners range from firefighters, who are using tools such as sensor technology and augmented reality, to computer scientists, who are sharing real-time information on emergency shelters through the use of cell phone technology (including a textbot designed by a college student during Hurricane Harvey). While our cafés on emergency response technology were held in person before the pandemic, the Teen Science Café Network has hosted and plans to continue hosting virtual events related to understanding the pandemic, on modeling forest fires, on Indigenous science, and on extreme drought. To keep it engaging, we use polling tools and apps that allow the teens to participate in challenges including those related to engineering design and cybersecurity. In all of this, we have been inspired by education staff at science centers who have dedicated enormous efforts to create high-quality interactive online youth programming when the pandemic shut down physical spaces.

College student Nile Dixon describes the textbot he developed to help people find shelter during Hurricane Harvey. Courtesy Science Education Solutions.

How can science centers bring these disparate audiences and tools together so that teens establish real connections with the work of disaster specialists? There are already a lot of elements in place: most centers have teen outreach programs, and many feature programs and tools that highlight extreme weather and its consequences. For example, an increasing number of centers have augmented reality sand tables.

The Augmented Reality Sandbox (AR Sandbox), which was developed by researchers at the University of California, Davis, is commonly found in science centers and other educational institutions. Sand tables like the AR Sandbox provide guests with a hands-on experience that uses sand to model a range of landscapes while computer projections show them how fires spread across the landscape when they manipulate wind direction or establish “dozer lines” (trenches dug with a bulldozer) to block the spread of fires.

These same tools can be used to show how intense rainfall impacts communities at various elevations and distances from a rising river. Similarly, many types of sensors, such as those that measure temperature, rate of water level increase, motion, and wind speed, can be found throughout science centers and can be used to illustrate the work of disaster specialists.

Most important, science centers have staff, including outreach specialists and teen educators, who can be catalysts to break down silos between teens, technology, and the expanding world of science practitioners dealing with disasters and pandemics. Science centers bring together all of the essential elements to provide ideal virtual and physical spaces for Teen Science Cafés addressing natural disasters and public health crises.

Photo of AR Sandbox at Lawrence Hall of Science
Youth use an AR Sandbox at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California. Watch the video at https://youtu.be/NorjCgY8Bj8. Photo courtesy Science Education Solutions

Fighting Forest Fires with SimTables

In New Mexico, where wildfires are a major threat, 30 teens invited a firefighter specializing in wildland-urban interface and a local computer scientist/designer to one of their Teen Science Cafés. These STEM specialists explained how their teams collaborate to detect fires, predict their spread, determine where dozer lines and fire retardants will be most effective, and move residents out of danger.

Students around a Simtable
Students at a 2018 Teen Science Café in New Mexico learn how to model the spread of, and the response to, wildfires on a Simtable. Photo by Kate Sallah

According to café leader Kate Sallah, teens used a tool developed by the computer scientist, an AR sand table called Simtable, to take action: “They created dozer lines where they would put in a bulldozer and scrape the ground of foliage to prevent the fire from jumping. The teens explored the processes and technology to make strategic airdrops of fire retardant from planes in the simulation. Then they could follow up to see if the airdrop was effective or not. With a Simtable, teens and experts planned escape routes so you could see where the roads are and you could see how the community would leave the area if they were ordered to evacuate.”

In addition, they learned how the Las Conchas Fire in 2011 “basically took out all the resources that the Pueblo people had been utilizing for hundreds of years,” said one of the teens. Even more eye-opening, these teens—many of them from Native American communities—learned that with a two-year degree from a local community college they could become well-paid specialists who use high-tech tools to monitor fires and protect their fellow citizens. With a little more STEM training, they could design crowdsourced apps that convey photographic data to fire specialists, who would then analyze the data to make real-time warnings to the public.

Putting Together Your Own Teen Science Café

If your center works with teens, it’s relatively easy to take the next step of breaking down barriers between teens, technology, and science practitioners by hosting a virtual or in-person Teen Science Café. For a detailed explanation, see the Teen Science Café Network’s guide. These are the steps in a nutshell:

  • Assemble a group of teen leaders who care about STEM and are interested in getting their friends involved.
  • Work with teen and adult leaders to identify community-relevant themes, such as the impact of natural disasters in their area.
  • Establish relationships with potential presenters—diverse science practitioners from universities, municipal departments, public health agencies, conservation groups, and even local hospitals.
  • Encourage teens to “coach” these practitioners about how to highlight their career pathways and give succinct and engaging presentations on their work. (See also our tips for presenters to create interactive presentations, many of which apply equally to virtual and in-person environments.)
  • Find and demonstrate technological tools and equipment that are being employed by the STEM practitioners. Teens like nothing better than learning about a new topic and role by using the equipment that is essential to it.

Teen Science Cafés that are hosted by science centers, museums, zoos, aquariums, and libraries, whether online or in person, can play a vital role in bringing youth together with community STEM practitioners, the high-tech tools that they use, and the rapidly expanding range of work that they do. STEM jobs of the future, especially those that address natural disasters, require workers who can span disciplines and technologies. Science centers and their sister institutions are well positioned to help youth become boundary crossers.

This work was supported by a grant from NSF’s RAPID program, as an educational response to the devastating hurricane season of 2017.

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