I’m sure many of my readers have heard about the long-running PBS television series entitled NOVA; I know that from a young age I was shown clips from this popular science show in my classrooms and after-school activities. Even more popular these days is the newsmagazine version of the show, NOVA ScienceNOW, which has been hosted by (as you all know by now, my personal favorite popular scientist), Neil deGrasse Tyson.
In 2006, NOVA ScienceNOW began ScienceCafes.org, a website to unify the efforts of the handfuls of Science Cafés popping up nationwide. Science Cafés have long been organized as an informal way to get those interested in science together for talks, panels, and discussions, as well as delicious food, coffee, and drinks, and by creating a community around what used to be disconnected events, NOVA ScienceNOW made the Cafés more accessible and, ultimately, more widespread.
Wait a second, what is a Science Café?
Science Cafés are small, informal events which bring together members of the community, whether professionally involved in science or not, to learn about and discuss a topic in science. They can be organized by anyone who is interested, whether a professor, a student, or simply a member of society who happens to love both science and community. There is no such thing as a “typical” format, but every Café does revolve around some form of a presentation from an “expert” on the topic. I use the word “expert” loosely, because, obviously, not every event is going to be able to bring in the leading researchers on any given topic. I’ve heard of talks with speakers who are local band directors, private practice doctors, organic farmers and, of course, research scientists.
The events are usually held in a small local venue such as a coffee shop, locally owned pub, restaurant, or even tea house! The organizer works with their venue to help plan out a date and time that works for both the owner and the projected audience, and to negotiate some sort of compensation. This compensation is, interestingly enough, not typically money. Because the event usually brings in somewhere between 40 and 100 customers over the course of two hours, the venue will most likely bring in more revenue than they would had then been operating normally. For larger events, sometimes held at restaurants or hotel banquet halls, the venue may even offer to provide appetizers or discounts on drinks!
So, it’s just a two hour-long lecture in a pub? That doesn’t sound very enticing…
Oh, most certainly not! The point of Science Cafés is to bring together a community in discussion, not in boredom! The point of bringing in the experts is simply to get those creative juices flowing. There are many popular structures for Science Cafés, and none of them involve extended lectures;
- The expert gives a 15-30 minute presentation; they introduce the topic and how they relate to the topic (through teaching, research, writing, etc.), and give a brief description of some relevant issues within the topic. After a 5-10 minute break for attendees to refill drinks and talk amongst themselves, the floor is then open for questions and discussion.
- A brief NOVA ScienceNOW segment on the topic at-hand is played via projector, and an expert on the topic offers their services as a discussion moderator/question answerer.
- A small panel of experts introduces themselves, their area of expertise, and their relation to the topic at hand, and then the floor is (as always) opened up!
As you can see, the one thing that is consistent across the board is the focus on everyone in the room getting involved! The moderator (typically the organizer of the event), serves to make sure that no one person dominates the discussion, especially the expert.
What topics do Science Cafés cover?
Whatever topic you want! For example, a Science Café in Daytona Florida held a “Life Beyond Earth” café that focused on the “Goldilocks” planets that are just right for life. Denton, TX’s Café focuses on humans in flight each month, and typically involves a “This Month in Science” segment, and they hold a raffle during each event. The Café Scientifique in Burlington, VT held a café entitled “Food Pathogens: is there an app for that?” and brought in local organic farmers, as well as food scientists, to fuel the discussion. The Marin Science Seminar brought in a doctor who focuses on addiction science to do a talk entitled “The Neurological Processes of Alcohol Addiction.”
As you can see, there is no limit to the topics that you can base your Science Café around. But if you’re a little stuck trying to figure out where to start, NOVA ScienceNOW has started suggesting themes for your cafe.
Cosmic Cafés focus around the NOVA series entitled “The Fabric of the Cosmos” on their website, they give a heap of suggestions for topics, such as “How we measure time” and “Dark Energy: Detecting and studying the invisible.”
Finding Life Beyond Earth is a theme which envelops such topics as “the formation of the solar system, the search for life in the universe, and what astronomy and cosmology tell us about reality and…ourselves”.
Making Stuff Cafés are about… well… making stuff! The themes focus on materials science topics, and can range from the engineering of nanotechnology to creating greener electronics and fuels.
Ok ok… you’ve got me convinced. So how do I get involved?
Believe it or not, it’s easier than you might think! NOVA ScienceNOW provides every resource you could ever need to get going; from sample timelines for planning a Café, to suggested ways to contact potential venues and speakers, they cover all aspects of planning an event. Once the gears have gotten rolling, they also give you tips for advertising and finding funding, and even have grants available to cover the costs of starting a new Café. There are lists of scientists who have given Science Café talks in your area before, as well as tips for speakers who haven’t.
Overall, Science Cafés are incredibly simple to organize and accessible ways to bring your community together over science. I, along with a few peers at Mount Holyoke, plan on working towards getting our own going, and I will chronicle our journey here.
If you were to organize your own Science Café, would you focus it around a theme? What kinds of Café topics would you be most attracted to? What kind of venue do you think is best – coffee shop? Pub? Restaurant?
I can’t wait to hear some of your feedback! Until then, Happy Monday!