Tuesday, December 23, 2008

How To: Start a Science Cafe

What’s Love Got to Do With It? That was the theme of a successful gathering of the minds I once helped organize at school, otherwise known as LoveFest. It was our novice attempt at getting college students excited about science through appeals to college interests: sex. We held it at the student pub, got Steven Pinker to talk about the language of love, and gave out these cute t-shirts. Our event was modeled after the up-and-coming science café phenomenon.

Science Cafes are local, informal events geared toward lay-people with an interest in learning about science. A café can take many forms—anything from a relaxed coffee-house, to a raucous pub night. But, the common denominator is an appreciation for and interest in science. One group that organizes science cafes in NYC, the Secret Science Club, was featured a while back in a NYTimes article.

The spirit of “Mr. Wizard’s World” has now reached an audience that can legally drink. The same late-night revelers who spent their high school and college years plodding through mandatory science classes are now gathering voluntarily to listen to presentations on principles of string theory or how orbitofrontal cortexes work — as long as it takes place far from the fluorescent lights of classroom….About 50 groups, with names like Science on Tap and Ask a Scientist, have formed in the last four years. There are three in New York City alone. Each month, they invite scientists, usually professors at nearby universities, to lecture on topics as varied as mass extinctions and frog mating calls. Anywhere from 50 to 100 people, none of whom wear pocket protectors, show up for an evening of imbibing hard science along with hard liquor.

These people sound—dare I say it—actually cool! The website has a nifty google map with the locations of all ongoing Science Cafes across the country. Just doing a quick search, I found a group right in my town, Arlington VA! Check out the map to find your local Science Cafe. Don't see one? Start your own. Here’s a complete guide, put together by the guys who run NOVA ScienceNOW, including how to promote your events and where you might be able to find funding and speakers. For example,

NOVA scienceNOW provides start-up grants for science cafés. To find out more about this funding opportunity, check out the grant guidelines.

Try to steer clear of mundane and content overloaded science talks, however. Your audience isn’t there to hear some grad student defend his thesis. They come to get the blood flowing in an area of the brain that lies dormant most of the time—the part that responds to an irresistible urge to mix Mentos and Coke and watch it explode, or cut off the tip of an earthworm and come back later to find its grown back. The idea is to bring science to the public in a comfortable atmosphere and a non-imposing format. The NYTimes article explains,

Organizers are careful to keep the events from turning into the soporific lectures their audiences once snoozed through in high school. Many forbid the scientists from using PowerPoint slides during presentations or talking for more than 20 minutes.

The event should be interactive—you may have to experiment with ways to keep the conversation going. The website offers these tips:

Trivia. As people are arriving for a café, trivia questions can get them talking together and thinking about a topic. Use these samples for ideas.

Go on tour. Are people sticking around after your event is "over" to keep discussions going on their own? Bringing the scientist from table to table at this point can lead to the best conversations of the event.

You can also get creative by contacting local businesses about using their space, or getting freebies in support of the event, in exchange for promotion. Talk to a local bar owner about getting a happy hour deal during your discussion. Also check out this forum for organizers.

Have you been to a good science café? Let us know about your experience!

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