Start a Café (Pt. 2)

Select a 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 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.

Find a Speaker
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.