The Teen Science Cafe: Building Better Buttons

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By Candice Bartholomew Brown


CU Graduate Student Diego Olaya, 22, says that high school experiences with CU Science Discovery’s Teen Science Cafe piqued his interest, leading him to complete a degree at CalTech and return to CU Boulder where he works in Professor Jun Ye’s group at JILA. He credits the program with helping to launch his dreams. 

While much of his time is dedicated to graduate studies in Physics, Olaya still leaves time to help lead Teen Science Cafe, a program where high schoolers meet with scientists and engineers. Thanks to an introduction made by the Office for Outreach and Engagement, the cafe now meets at Lafayette Public Library where students from the Front Range have easy access.

“It’s good that we can meet students here in their own backyard. We want to build a cafe culture so that people know about it,” said CU Science Discovery Teen Cafe director Alexandra Rose.

To facilitate that culture, Rose and Olaya arrived early to the November cafe and met with teen program volunteer coordinators. Together, they set out snacks, discussed topics for upcoming cafes and welcomed students. A freshman from Skyline High was the first to arrive.  

“He’s interested in gaming and computer programming,”  said his mom. “He wanted to check it out first and then report to his friends.” 

Olaya  introduced the program and explained the ground rules: chill environment, help yourself to snacks, and please silence cell phones. He then introduced Peter Gyory and Krithik Ranjan, both graduate students from ATLAS at CU Boulder. 

Before setting up the group activity, Gyory and Ranjan provided a brief history of gaming as well as their academic trajectories. Gyory completed his undergraduate studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology and worked in web design before completing his Masters.  Now he’s pursuing a PhD in creative technology, developing tools to support alternative game controllers. After Ranjan completed his degree in electrical engineering at Cornell University, he enrolled at CU Boulder to study video production. 

“And where will you go?”asked a girl in the front row. 

“Professionals with advanced degrees in reactive technology may work in academics, industrial design or in the game design industry. I could be a computer programer, but I hate math!” said Gyory.

A palpable buzz then enveloped the room when Gyory and Ranjan introduced the activity.

“Google the jumping dino,” said Gyory. “We’ll use the Boolean markers that the camera detects and the dino jumps!” 

Rose and Olaya looked on, trying to be inconspicuous so the vibe can be driven by the students. 

“We’re trying to rebuild the program back to what it was before the pandemic,” said Olaya.“It’s ideal for teens with busy schedules, because it doesn’t take too much time and does not require a longer term commitment. Students learn about their interests and about what’s happening in STEM. They can sign up to help coordinate the program and put it on their CV if they like.”

“We want the students to figure out what the program will become. So, the website is a work in progress,” explained  Rose. 

The program dates and times are listed on the website along with information for teens interested in volunteering as program ambassadors.