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“We’re here because our science teacher is diving in one of the tanks!,” said Layla Maura, 16, as she and her friends waited outside California Academy of Sciences on Friday.
Maura and her friends attend George Washington High School and received an email from their teacher about the event.
“We were like, ‘Why not see him tonight, swimming around?’,” Maura said.
Then, the doors to Cal Academy opened, and hundreds of teenagers streamed in to take over the venue for Teen Science Night.
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The event is planned once a year for teens, by teens at Cal Academy in Golden Gate Park. From 6:30-9 p.m. Friday, teens could visit the museum for free, attend special programs (like the teacher diving into the tank) and get connected with organizations and resources supporting teenagers in the Bay Area.
Many of the teenagers attending the event this Friday hadn’t visited Cal Academy since they were children or before the pandemic.
“I used to come here a lot, so this is very nostalgic for me. It’s nice to see the aquarium and the butterflies,” said Jade Huang, a recent high school graduate from Cupertino. The Steinhart Aquarium at Cal Academy hosts more than 900 species of animals and takes visitors into the ocean’s “twilight zone” usually located 100 to 500 feet beneath the ocean’s surface.
Ty Hosein, another recent graduate from San Jose, said he attended Teen Science Night because of his interest in biodiversity.
“It is a great place to see biodiversity, from the aquarium to the biosphere,” Hosein said, referencing the four-story high dome that encloses a vertical rainforest of plants, beetles, birds, butterflies and even an Amazonian tree boa.
Other teens attending the event were thrilled they didn’t have to pay to get in.
“I’m here because it is free, and I am broke. Also, I kind of like it here,” said Jasmine Strain as they waited in line to visit the rainforest. “I’m also a big science nerd. I love space, I love earthquakes — especially since I live in San Francisco.”
As teens explored the various offerings at the museum, from the new “Bugs” exhibition to “The Swamp” — home to the famous albino alligator Claude — Bay Area organizations like San Francisco Public Library, TeenTechSF Global and Literacy for Environmental Justice talked to students about their missions and resources.
Connecting Bay Area teens with resources was especially important to the teen planners of the event — many of whom are students of color who are interested in STEM careers.
Teen Science Night is planned by interns in the Careers in Science program at Cal Academy. Interns join the program as rising sophomores or juniors and do work, teaching and research at the museum through high school graduation.
“If you’re from a minority immigrant family that might not be able to afford higher education like I am, Teen Science Night connects you to organizations that are so excited to support students and help them get involved in science,” said Viva Voong from SF’s Portola District, one of the student organizers of Teen Science Night.
“I hope teens know that there are so many resources that want to support women and people of color,” Voong said, who has interned at the museum for three years doing botany projects, working on teams with NASA scientists and presenting research at the American Geophysical Union Conference.
“This program has connected me to others that serve people of color and helped me realize that there’s a lot of support for people like me to pursue their dreams,” Voong said, who is headed to Brown University this fall to continue doing research and ultimately to become an oncologist.
Racqyl Basas from SF’s Outer Sunset, another student organizer of Teen Science Night, is less sure about what kind of STEM career she wants to pursue.
“There are so many other options to be involved in STEM that don’t require you to have a Ph.D. or to write scientific papers,” Basas said. “When you think of science, it’s shouldn’t be just a white lab coat. There are so many other opportunities out there, so we hope that’s something teens realize.”
Basas is looking forward to exploring careers in geology and science communication at City College of San Francisco beginning this fall.
She credits her experience working in the library archives at Cal Academy for boosting her self-confidence and shaping her career aspirations.
“The library archives mentorship taught me [about] these great discoveries and contributions from people of color in science, but we don’t recognize the origin of their discoveries,” said Basas, who profiled Luis Felipe Baptista during her internship.
Baptista immigrated to San Francisco from Hong Kong straight out of high school and began doing research at Cal Academy. He eventually became an international expert on animal behavior and bird learning.
“I’m not an immigrant myself, but I’m first gen,” Basas said. “If he [Baptista] could take that step fresh out of high school, it is definitely something I can do!”
While Voong and Basas were hard at work on Teen Science Night making sure the event ran smoothly, teens gathered at the “Coral Reefs of the World” exhibition to learn about the Philippine Coral Reef and to watch Jordan Lee, a former youth volunteer at Cal Academy and present marine biology teacher at George Washington High School, dive into the tank.
Maura and her friends cheered as he swam through one of the largest indoor coral reefs in the world, surrounded by fluorescent schools of fish.