Follow these steps to start your own science café.
Step One: Identify a café coordinator.
The café coordinator (this could be you or someone else) organizes and runs the actual event, including locating a venue, finding scientists/presenters, promoting the event, and evaluating its success. The coordinator should be able to:
- understand and establish a rapport with the target audience,
- find and work with presenting scientists,
- moderate the café or find a moderator,
- take care of logistics, such as booking a venue and maintaining an email list,
- find creative ways to promote events.
At first, the main resource required is time. It can take a few months from the decision to start a café to the first meeting. Once a café is established, preparing for subsequent meetings may take only several hours over the course of a few weeks.
Step Two: Choose a moderator.
The moderator plays a crucial role in getting as many people involved as possible. Café coordinators may or may not also be moderators.
A good moderator ensures that no one dominates the conversation (including the scientist!). Typically, the moderator introduces the café and the scientist, keeps track of time, and makes sure the conversation moves along.
During the discussion, the moderator often calls on audience members, asks questions of the presenters and the audience when there’s a lull, and makes sure that the conversation doesn’t become too technical or inaccessible. A moderator does not have to be an expert on the topic or know any of the answers! As one café coordinator stated, “the moderator is freed up to focus on the group dynamics of the conversation.”
It’s fun to come up with a catchy, playful name for your café. Try for something clever and memorable!
Science Cafés tend to be held in the evenings during the week, but can also be held on weekend afternoons. Unless you are dealing with an already-established group, avoid Friday evenings, Saturdays, and Sunday mornings.
Pick a venue that people are excited to visit and invite their friends to. Typical venues for science education events, such as science centers or lecture halls, often do not make the best meeting spots for Science Cafés. An unconventional venue is an important part of the atmosphere for the overall event and will reach new audiences.
Go where your audience already congregates naturally. Science Cafés have been held in pubs, coffeehouses, bookstores, restaurants, art galleries, malls, and even bowling alleys.
Logistical issues are important in choosing a venue. Keep in mind acoustics, background noise, line of sight, the ability to reserve a block of time, flexible seating arrangements, public accessibility, and the availability of food and drink. Many venues have in-house audiovisual equipment, making it easy to show videos, such as clips from NOVA scienceNOW, and to provide a microphone for the presenter and/or the audience. Whenever possible, visit the venue prior to your Science Café event and ask for a quick tour as a final check of the facility.
Step Four: Register your café.
Registering your café will get it on the map—literally! Once you have a name, time, and place, you will want to register your café. Doing so will provide you access to the "Grow a Café" section of this site, which includes more detailed information about funders, sponsers and/or partners, sample publicity materials, evaluation results, ongoing advice and ideas from the science café community, and suggestions on how to keep your café fresh and exciting. You’ll also find a Sample Timeline and Sample Schedule that will help you better understand the practicalities of running a café. When you register, your café will be added to the Find a Café map.
Step Five: Decide on a café topic.
The topic for a café meeting serves as a general theme to catch people’s interest and draw them into discussion. Some cafés do a “mini series,” involving a few meetings in a row on related topics. For instance, a series on forensics might include a fingerprinting or crime lab expert, a medical examiner, and a psychiatrist.
The best topics provoke a reaction in everyone—research that is inherently fascinating or changes the way people think; developments that have social impact or create ethical dilemmas; and events in the news are all good starting points. If you are not sure about a topic, try to get some feedback from members of your target audience, or convene your informal “focus group.”
Whether or not you plan on using video, check out the topics covered by NOVA scienceNOW to get some ideas for your Science Café.
Once you have chosen your topic, you may want to check with related professional societies and associations to see if there are active members in your area. These organizations can help you promote your Science Café, may be a source for a guest speaker, and may also attract an audience for your event.
Step Six: Invite a guest scientist/expert.
Your Science Café may include one scientist or a panel of experts (you may decide to vary the setup from meeting to meeting). Although many scientists may be happy to have the opportunity to share their work, not every scientist is a good fit for a Science Café. Be selective—choosing the right presenter is key to creating a welcoming atmosphere. Look for someone who is:
- personable, friendly, enthusiastic,
- broadly knowledgeable about the topic,
- comfortable answering questions,
- able to discuss research and concepts without using jargon.
It’s best if you can actually meet and speak with the scientist before extending an invitation so you can get a sense of his or her style and personality. (If you can see him or her in action or on video, so much the better!) Plus, you want to realistically convey the expectations as well as the atmosphere of a Science Café. Don’t be afraid to gently coach the scientist to demonstrate how the Science Café format works. As a current Science Café coordinator said, “always make sure to have the speaker focus on the SO WHAT of their research. In other words, why should the audience care about their research? They should present their topic in a personal and engaging ways that allows the audience to develop a personal connection to what they are hearing.”
Common places to find guest scientists include: universities, government research institutions, professional associations, museums, and R&D firms and other businesses. Other experts to consider include the science editor of the local newspaper, doctors and nurses, and science teachers. Scientists who have previously presented at a Science Café may be able to recommend other speakers.
Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, encourages its members to participate in Science Cafés. Find a Sigma Xi chapter near you here or contact Sigma Xi here. Local Sigma Xi chapters may also be able to request a Distinguished Lecturer.
Other organizations to contact include: The American Chemical Society, Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS), the Nanoscale Informal Science Education (NISE) Network Scientist Database, the National Lab Network, and Science for Citizens.