Would you like to take a post-graduate course in science for no more than the price of a cup of coffee or even for free? It may sound too good to be true, but it's something you can easily do. All you have to do is attend one of the hundreds of science cafés being held around the country.
Science cafés are an informal, grassroots network of events that take place in settings as varied as botanical gardens, restaurants or pubs. The speaker is a specialist on a particular topic, and the goal is to engage the audience in a conversation rather than hold a lecture. In fact, it's this casual atmosphere that's the secret sauce in the the popularity of science cafés.
"In the United States, education is often framed as halting after K-12 or college," said Brooke Havlik, education manager for "NOVA," the award-winning and top-rated science series on television, which reaches an average of 5 million viewers weekly. "Science cafés provide adults free or low-cost informal opportunities to connect with scientists in their community and learn with them. Attendees appreciate the format since science cafés are participatory conversations between the audience and the speaker."
The cafés are open to everyone, and everyone is encouraged to join in the conversation. "You show up, have the option to drink a coffee or beer and engage with others who have similar interests and questions about science," said Havlik.
How to find a science café near you
NOVA and a public broadcasting station in Boston, WGBH, have teamed up to make it easy for you to find a science café. With the help and input of many science café organizers and support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, they created the website.
The purpose of the website, which grew out of a grant of $2.6 million the NSF awarded in 2009 to WGBH for seasons five and six of NOVA scienceNOW, is to serve as a community resource to support and encourage the growth of science cafés and to provide comprehensive resources for science café organizers, explained Havlik. WGBH and NOVA host the website and a Facebook page so that café organizers can interact and learn best practices from each other. “WGBH and NOVA are proud to help support the global, grassroots network of science cafés through our website,” Havlik said, emphasizing “grassroots” and pointing out that there is no single umbrella organization that manages the cafés.
To find a to find a science café near you, simply enter your ZIP code in the ZIP code search box above the map on the site. (Hint: it is much easier to find cafes with the ZIP code search than by enlarging the map and clicking on one of the colored circles!)
To ensure that as many cafes as possible have working links and up-to-date information, NOVA and WGBH recently updated the website and the list of 396 cafés that have registered on the site. Unfortunately, a 100 percent accuracy rate is not possible, said Tom Scanlon, NOVA Education Outreach coordinator. “The cafés are user-driven by volunteers, and when the leadership changes hands the next site administrator might not be as active as his or her predecessor in maintaining the café’s profile on the sciencecafes.org site,” says Scanlon. His conservative estimate is that at least 225-250 of the registered cafés are active.
If you do encounter a broken link when trying to find a café, there are several things you can do to find the café and help NOVA/WGBH restore the link, Scanlon said. One is to do a Google search using the name of the café. The other is to mouse over “Contact us” under "Useful Links" at the bottom of the sciencecafes.org site and send the staff at NOVA/WGBH an email alerting them to the broken link. NOVA/WGBH can then find a contact name for the café and email that information to you. They can also ask the café leader to update the café’s profile and links.
Popular cafés by region
A presenter discusses bees at the SEES Science on Tap science café in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Photo: Science on Tap/Facebook)
Some of the most active cafes around the country are:
South: Science Cafes University of South Alabama Archaeology Museum, Mobile, Alabama; Science Café at Cook Library, University of South Mississippi; Rocket City Science Café, Huntsville, Alabama; and Science Café Raleigh, Raleigh, North Carolina.
Southwest: New Mexico PBS Science Café!, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
West Coast: Chapman University Science on Tap, Orange, California; World of Wonders Science Museum, Lodi, California; and Marin Science Seminar, a free, science cafe type event targeted at teenagers and community, San Rafael, California.
What if there isn't a café near you?
If there isn't a science café near you, the WGBH/NOVA website offers an organizer resources link that provides everything you need to know to start your own café, including how to host an event, how to evaluate your café after the fact, how to further your café and how to make it sustainable.
To help people who want to launch their own café get started, Havlik offered four tips based on her experience in organizing CafeSci Boston:
1. Organize with the community
Find your local community of science advocates who can help spread the message about upcoming cafes. One place to look for these, she said, is online spaces where the science community convenes, such as Meetup.com, Facebook or Google+.
2. Choosing a place to meet
Consider spaces that are not specifically science-focused. These could be community centers, libraries, coffee houses, restaurants or pubs.
3. Select and prep the speaker
Be selective when choosing a speaker. Ask the community for speaker suggestions. Once you have candidates, Google them to see if they have any previous lectures available online. If not, try to meet or speak with the candidates before extending an invitation to get a sense of their style and personality. Be sure that the speaker you select understands the relaxed and conversational style of the cafés and that he or she is not giving a lecture.
4. Work with your local PBS/NPR station
This can be helpful because many local stations hold events and have an existing community of adult learners. Inquire if you can organize a café together. WGBH's Forum Network, for example, films the CafeSci Boston events and puts them on its website and YouTube page for a global audience to see. You can also help spread the word about your café by asking a journalist to attend an event and report on it.
What subjects make good topics?
While Kass said health/medicine and the environment are two general topics that seem to have universal interest, both she and Havlik said the most popular topics are those that resonate with local audiences.
In Boston, for example, there is strong interest in cafés related to physics and biomedical research. "CafeSci Boston offers café topics related to all science fields, but those two topics are strong points of interest to the Boston science community," Havlik said. "I think this is testament to the beauty of science cafés. Each café sets its own course based on the community in which it resides."