The Science Café Guide: Everything You Need To Start Your Own

Earlier this month I had the privilege of moderating a SciParty on Twitter about science outreach programs, and it was a ton of fun (here’s the storify)! And whereas we chatted about a variety of different outreach types — from working with schools to “science night outs” and more — I was impressed by the huge interest in the model of Science Café.

But perhaps I shouldn’t be! Having started a Science Café for my own local area, I can’t help but vouch for how great they are at bringing the community together in ways that are both relevant and engaging for science. Not to mention, logistics-wise, they are relatively easy and it’s something anyone can start.

So I thought it might be worth penning a bit of what I’ve learned in the form of a guide for those who might be interested in starting one in their area. And being the more detailed oriented type, I wanted to focus on the exact how-to’s of doing that.

But in case you haven’t heard of a Science Café before…

What is a Science Café?

The best definition I’ve seen yet comes from sciencescafes.org (an excellent site for resources, finding other Science Café, and registering yours by the way!). To quote:

“Science Cafés are events that take place in casual settings such as pubs and coffeehouses, are open to everyone, and feature an engaging conversation with a scientist about a particular topic.”

And that’s it! The model is pretty wide open, but the point here is focusing on the event being a casual, inclusive, and engaging way to bring science topics to the public. Science Café styles may vary, but these tend to be once-a-month, short (hour or so) events that bring in a local scientist to chat with the audience about a relevant science topic in a relaxed location. But again, flavor may vary, which brings me to the first point of my guide. So you want to start a Science Café…

Step 1:  Determine Your Style

As mentioned, quite a few types of “Science Café” have sprung up under the general umbrella term, and whereas you’re welcome to create your own new flavor, I thought I’d mention a few broad groupings I’ve seen here:

  • Traditional
  • Science Pub
  • Teen Science Café
  • Themed
  • Blended

Traditional

This is your “bread and butter” Science Café and generally the easiest to set up. Typical style is an hour to and hour-and-a-half event bringing a local scientist to a public venue (as you might have guessed from the name, coffee shops make good locales for this) for a short talk and some Q&A. The focus here is on dialogue, not lecture, and is generally meant to keep the conversation accessible for all ages and understanding levels.

Science Pub

Given that one of the key considerations in starting a Science Café is picking a venue where the audience feels free to talk openly, one could imagine that a local pub might add a little grease to the ease of conversation. This style (same as traditional, just a different location) is growing in popularity and might help pull in some new individuals, but it’s worth considering whether the presence of alcohol might alienate others who might well be your staple audience (for instance, younger students and families). All the same, some pubs are welcome as family-friendly locales and can still work for everyone.

Teen Science Café

While this is not a format I have as much experience with myself, I’ve heard great things about bringing relevance and creativity to the Science Café event by having teens (high school students) plan the events. As such, the student leaders and organizers gain the educational experience of leading the program while also offering new insight and perhaps a more targeted design for a possibly younger audience. For more information, visit teensciencecafe.org.

Themed

One common choice is to fit all of your Science Café topics (and even the venue) around a certain broad category (biology, space, women in science, etc.) and give it a jazzy name. For a list of examples, check out this page.

Blended

This is actually the current model of the Science Café I run — why pick just one model? If you run your cafés once a month, it ends up being fairly manageable to alternate between locations on a recurring basis. For instance, you might do one night at a coffee shop where it’s easier to pull in the family-friendly crowd, and then do the next month at a pub. Then you have the flexibility of giving one location a specific focus, or leaving both to pull a mix of audiences. Not to mention that you could, of course, mix up any of the styles above.

Step 2:  Pick a Location

This might well be tantamount to the first step, but once you’ve picked your intended style you’ll need to negotiate with a willing host. And don’t be afraid of this! Remember that your event could potentially bring a host location further business and exposure. Some Science Cafés even make arrangements where a portion of the proceeds for that night goes back to the Science Café. Granted, such willingness may be rare, but I encourage you to at least find a host that will work with you for no charge to host the Science Café. That said, here are a few locations worth trying:

  • Coffee shops
  • Pubs
  • Book stores
  • Libraries
  • Malls
  • Art galleries

Wherever you choose, be sure it feels relaxed and informal if possible. Often the more unique, the better. Atmosphere and a sense of casualness is key. For the same reason, we’ve avoided hosting ours at our university or a nearby museum even though that might have been more convenient for us. The option for food and drink also adds to the style and interest. But there’s a few other considerations you’ll want to make:

  • Is there adequate parking and access?
  • Will the seating work? Can it be moved?
  • Any audio/visual equipment already present?
  • Can everyone see the presenter?
  • How does sound carry? Any background noise?
  • Is the venue willing to help (advertising, setup, etc.)?
  • How’s communication with the owner? Will they be engaged with you and keep your time reservations?

Not every location will be ideal, so at the very least, pick a place that can make a firm commitment to your event and stay in regular communication with your contact there.

Step 3:  Supplies, Budget, & Resources

Generally speaking, the cost of running a Science Café is comparatively negligible. The primary upkeep cost your most likely to see is in advertising — printing fliers, ads in the paper or radio, etc. More than likely you’ll be able to find speakers who are willing to come at no cost, and again, avoid the venues that charge you if at all possible!

All the same, there are some budget considerations worth making and your venue might not have the audio/visual you want:

  • Sound System — While your venue may already have this, I do recommend at least having your speaker on a mic. Since our venue didn’t have sound setup, we bought a portable PA system (something like this) for ~$140 which put out plenty enough for our crowds of 40-100. As we moved on to larger crowds, we needed more output and just started taking advantage of the larger venue’s setup. Since I’m no sound system expert, let me focus on the things that were helpful for us:
    • Being portable is really, really nice, especially if your venue changes.
    • Two mics are very helpful (one for the speaker, one for the moderator)
    • Having a few connections is also nice (we send audio from the computer to the speaker via bluetooth), but you can always buy adapters for this also
    • Once you start pulling large groups, it’s easier to work with the venue to get adequate sound rather than breaking the bank for a full A/V setup.
  • Projector & Screen — This is not actually necessary! In fact, many Science Cafés prohibit the use of Power Point (or Keynote) slides to help keep the event as more a dialogue than a lecture. BUT if you do want to use them, I recommend going cheap and mobile here. I don’t have the links, but grabbed a screen with stand for ~$80, and the projector itself (with a tripod) was a little cheaper than that. Dim the lights a little if the projector is weak, but no need to break the bank. Any Power Point should be an aid anyways, not the main show.
  • Clicker — If you’re going to allow Power Point presentations, be sure to grab a clicker to allow the presenter some flexibility with their slides. We grabbed this one for ~$10.
  • Give Aways — Though not necessary by any means, we like to do a little raffle at the end of the night at our café to encourage the audience to stick around. Shirts, caps, mugs, pens, gimmick things like that, and often whatever is leftover from various promo stocks. Consider if this is something you might can have donated or, for instance, have the coffee shop raffle some free drinks.
  • Incentive Food/Drink — If it’s your first opening, think about offering free pizza and/or drinks for the night! I wouldn’t stick with it unless you’ve got a great budget, but it might help that initial pull of interest.

There are also a couple of things you might think of to help you offset costs:

  • Work with the venue — If there’s something specific you need for the café but don’t have the cash for, see if the venue will buy those items for themselves but let you use them. Maybe your Science Café is just the time for them to grab that sound system they were thinking about?
  • Charge at the door — Whereas it seems most Science Café are free, there’s nothing to say you can’t charge. I personally think it’s great to have them as a free offering for the community, but sometimes, paradoxically, charging a small $5 or $10 fee actually encourages attendance.
  • Various grants — You might be surprised by the small, seed grant funding already out there for your Science Café. While I know Teen Science Cafe offers some, a simple google search yielded a good few results for me.

Have any tips on funding your café? Be sure to leave them in the comments!

And one last resource you’ll definitely want to consider — people! There’s no need for this to be a one-person show. Even just the lugging of supplies to the venue can be a pain, so grab some interested individuals a make a team effort out of it. You might divvy the tasks between things like advertising, finding presenters, and communicating with the venue, or other tasks. In the very least, you’ll need a moderator to keep the flow of the evening going and introduce the speaker/event, so don’t leave this important thought out!

Step 4:  Plan Your Schedule for the Night

There’s no format that a Science Café has to abide by, but I encourage you to keep it:

  • Manageable (once a month normally won’t stretch you too thin on presenters or planning)
    • Try and set a consistent date of the month so the audience knows what to expect for further cafés. Tues/Thurs evenings seem to work well for us.
  • Engaging (key in on audience participation and discussion, less “talking at them” as possible)
  • Relatively short (keep it brisk and lively!)

And to get a feel for your format for the night, I encourage you to check out other cafés and their formats. All the same, you’ll likely find that you’ll want to be flexible. Some times your presenter will inevitably go long or short, and things just happen.

That said, simply as an example, the format at our café is scheduled for about an hour and typically looks like:

  1. ~10-15 minutes:  Participants arrive. Trivia and Introductions. (This soft start helps as people rarely shuffle in right on time)
  2. ~15-25 minutes:  Speaker Talks
  3. ~5 minutes:  Break if time, or if speaker is quick
  4. ~20 minutes:  Q&A session (Be prepared with some open-ended questions in case it takes a bit for the audience to join up with their own)
  5. ~5 minutes:  Wrap-up, trivia answers given, and raffle (Often the audience may want to stay and chat, so encourage them to hang around and discuss!)

During that time, you’ll also want to be sure to pass out a sign-up sheet to help build a contact list and announce upcoming cafés. We also leave some “comment cards” on the tables at our café to get a little feedback (participants leave these in baskets on the table at their leisure).

Some other cafés extend the event to 1.5 hrs or a little more by adding in a few more elements like guided group discussions, audience polling, interactive activities, videos and so on. Experiment, see what works for you, and be flexible as you’re rarely likely to really follow a set schedule.

Step 5:  Find & Prep Your Presenters

While we typically run one presenter per night, you might choose to have a panel or even a couple of presenters. Whatever your choice, there are a few dispositions you’ll want to target when searching for speakers:

  • Passionate about the topic and explaining it to others (find this, and often you’ve covered at lot of other bases!)
  • Friendly
  • Describes topics concisely and avoids jargon
  • Is great with questions (and challenges! sometimes the audience might throw a skeptical question)
  • Has a wide knowledge of the topic (audience members often pose loosely related questions to the key topic, so the ability to take those or confidently acknowledge they don’t know is important)
  • Is dependable and will keep good communications with you (you don’t won’t a no-show or last-minute cancellation!)
  • Can communicate the relevance of their topic to the public

And while you may think a research university is the best place to find your presenters, don’t forget about school teachers, doctors, nurses, industry researchers and engineers, government institutions, citizen science groups, and really anyone passionate and knowledgeable about their topic. It’s OK to interpret the “scientist” part of your café a little loosely!

As for the approach, there are a couple of things to consider that might help give what may often be a “cold call” request some direction. Getting your audience to suggest topics gives you targets of expertise to look for and can give you the clout of acknowledging public interest. If you don’t have a particular topic you want to cover, it’s worth studying up on what the local science professionals in your area actually do (their research topics or industry profession) while paying particular attention to what might be most easily made relevant to the general public. From there you can put forth a much more genuine discussion of interest. And finally, keep an eye out for individuals or groups who already do science outreach or public science events of any kind as this might be something they could enjoy.

Once you’ve got your presenter lined up, DO discuss the style and expectations with presenter. While you might feel a lot of the ideal attributes above are “common sense” for this type of event, it can be surprisingly easy (for all of us!) to fall into lecture mode or get too deep into a topic with less visible public relevance. As such, slipping in some cordial reminders of the café’s aims are definitely worth it.

If you’d like some tips for presenters, the ScienceCafes.org webpage has a handy list here which you could adapt and give to those who come to your café. It’s worth the read, but if I had to pick just three:

  • Focus on why the audience should care
  • Avoid jargon
  • Be casual, try to relax, and definitely, absolutely, have fun!

Step 6:  Get the word out

You might be surprised at how much interest these events can pull, but if your first Science Café is just a small group, no worries! Science Café work well also as a intimate, small group discussion, and sometimes packing a house is actually quite the pain. Start with what you have and build up. That said, here’s some tips on how to let the world know the awesome thing you’ve got going on:

  • Social Media — Of course. But let me be specific, you’re looking for local groups who might be interested and willing to spread the word (clubs, museums, friend circles, radio & news, organizations). Tag, mention, message them all, and tailor it to them. You might get a few bites.
  • Community Event Pages — Your community likely has a calendar website (or section in the newspaper) where you can note your date (and often for free). City “tourism bureau” pages if your area has one is a good place to start looking. Be sure to post regularly!
  • News & Radio — A little networking and you might be able to land a little free PR, but don’t be afraid to spend a few small bucks on an ad, particularly for the first night. Also consider your local NPR station as they sometimes do free non-profit calendar announcements, and that’s likely a good demographic target.
  • Email List — Make sure you keep one! You want to make sure the people who come keep coming, and to do that it really helps to have a regular line of communication about upcoming dates.
  • Fliers — While these may sometimes be glossed over, you at least want to have some at the venue itself. You might also be able to post these at a nearby college campus, library, or other amenable public gathering places and shops. I personally use one general format that we can swap out the presenters headshot, bio, and upcoming dates on each month, but you can find a variety of resources online (again, www.sciencecafes.org is a good resource for this).
  • Connections — Think of those whose interest your café aligns with, and you might find a few willing to spread the word. If you know a few science teachers for instance, they might help engage the families they serve. A university outreach department or campus science clubs might already have a network of connections and be willing to pass it along. If there’s any group that does anything similar to this, send it to them!
  • Have a Webpage — In today’s time, not having a website can sometimes feel like simply not existing. All the same, this helps your café be discovered online (where we spend so much of our time) and gives the audience a place to go to look for upcoming dates. There are tons of free (or very, very cheap) website creators and domain (website name) registrars out there that are just a google search away, so don’t feel like you need coding knowledge or a wad of cash to make it happen. Even a simple one-pager with you location, times, and topics can help!
  • Get Creative — Make it stand out! Use sidewalk chalk, mystery/viral marketing, meetup websites, anything at your disposal. And then experiment!

Once you get a decent initial crowd, do your best to keep them! Solicit their feedback and take it to heart. See what kind of topics they want, and bring them in. Engage them, encourage them to engage others, and keep those communication lines open!

Step 7:  Have fun!

Whatever you do from here, do your best to enjoy it! Whereas a Science Café has a bit of an educational slant, they are often only as educational as they are fun. Be prepared and be polite, but don’t take yourself or the program too seriously and both you, the presenters, and your audience will benefit from it!


Have questions, comments, or tips about running a Science Café? Be sure to leave them in the comments below or reach me on Twitter @joshkking!

 

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