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Promoting science, Petaluma teen expands social skills

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A middle school science class first captured Juliana Roper’s imagination and got her excited about science. Now a Petaluma High School senior, Roper is working with the California Academy of Sciences to get other young people jazzed about the subject.

The Academy has plenty of exhibits, events and youth programs year round that offer hands on experience and education to science lovers of all ages. Roper plans to study at UC Berkeley with a concentration in either environmental earth science or molecular and cell biology.

She was attracted to one program in particular, the Teen Advocates for Science Communication, a youth-led collaborative where 8th to 12th grade students from all nine counties of the Bay Area are invited to take on leadership roles within the Academy.

TASC was formed in 2012 in an effort to help youth develop a passion for science and the environment beginning at a young age. Roper joined TASC in 2015 and interviewed for the leadership design team, a position available to experienced members of TASC who wish to challenge themselves and take on more responsibility.

“These are the 21st century social skills students need,” said Leah Kalish, program manager for TASC.

Within the leadership design team, there are 10 to 12 returning youth volunteers given a specific focus such as a marketing team, graphic design team, and in Roper’s case, the social media team. They are mentored by the Academy staff on a weekly basis and help brainstorm ideas on how to amplify interactive exhibits.

“I began the program as an incredibly shy individual who didn’t think she’d be able to become a leader or speak up for herself,” said Roper. “TASC has not only expanded my knowledge in science, but expanded my social skills and understanding of who I am.”

The staff not only educate the volunteers, but prepare them to convey and communicate the material to patrons on the museum floor.

“Teaching science concepts to youth and allowing them to teach their peers, helps them recognize themselves as scientists,” said Dennis Mabasa, program coordinator for TASC. “They are creating their own STEM identities.”

TASC is responsible for planning and facilitating #TeenScienceNight, an annual event at the Academy for the past six years. The event is the nation’s largest museum event exclusively run by teens, for teens.

“If we teach our amazing, diverse group at a young age, I truly believe we could increase more opportunities and create more accessibility in the field,” said Mabasa.

The Academy partners with 17 local vendors including the de Young Museum, The San Francisco Zoo & Gardens, The Marine Mammal Center and the Chabot Space & Science Center. Youth volunteers from outside vendors assist TASC in facilitating science, art, music and technology activity stations.

This year, Schoolyard to Market, a nonprofit aimed at educating consumers about sustainable agriculture will explain the importance of fair trade and buying local produce. In addition, TASC will host a sustainability wall, which allows attendees to choose an organism they want to protect and provide resources on how they can support that cause.

Entry includes full access to exhibits including the rainforest exhibit, aquarium and the Academy’s new planetarium. Attendees are free to roam the museum as they please, and participate in the stations that interest them. The Academy is expecting between 2,000 to 3,000 attendees for this year’s event.

“It is crucial that teens get involved in science so they can better understand how the world functions, and what we can be doing to save it,” Roper said. “We are the next generation of leaders.”

This year’s #TeenScienceNight will be held on Aug. 17 from 6:30-9:30 p.m. at the California Academy of Sciences. Entry is free but registration is necessary prior to the event. Only teens ages 13-18 may participate.