Beer and Burgers With a Side of Science

by Nancy Atkinson on June 4, 2008

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Astronomers and cosmologists endeavor to solve some of the great mysteries of the universe. One mystery scientists here at the AAS meeting in St. Louis are seriously trying to address is how to make science more interesting and accessible to the general public. While this issue has little cosmic implications, having a “science literate” population in our ever-growing technology-based civilization is not just an advantage, but becoming an absolute necessity. In attempt to tackle this concern, a group of astronomers are encouraging others to follow the lead of a concept that seems to be working: Invite the public out for a beer.

Science Cafes, or “Café Scientifique,” are billed as places where, for the price of glass of beer or a cup of coffee, anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology. The people leading these groups are committed to promoting public engagement with science, as well as helping scientists improve their communication skills.

“Beer and science are two things a lot of us love,” said Randy Landsberg, Director of the Kavli Institute of Cosmological Science in Chicago. “We started a Science Café just because we thought it would be fun. We wanted to get people engaged to understand the research we’re doing, and researchers to be better at conveying the science. The drinks help.”

Meetings take place in cafes, bars, restaurants but always outside a traditional scientific or academic context.

“We want to provide a fun place to hear about science,” said Landsberg.

The group in Chicago meets at a local establishment that supports the effort by offering free appetizers. Their format is a brief introduction to the topic, (15-20 minutes) with limited visual aids (detailed PowerPoint’s are frowned upon). Then they take a break, get some beer and follow with a question and answer session for about 90 minutes. People can leave anytime they want, and the scientists are monitored. “If the speaker starts talking about derivatives, we try to rein him in,” Landsberg said.

They try to vary the topics. “It’s not all cosmology all the time. We’ve done global warming, flying snakes, biology of gender, and one entitled ‘The Dark Side: from dark energy and dark matter to Washington and science policy.’”

Ben Wiehe, the Outreach Coordinator at WGBH Educational Foundation in Boston, has been instrumental promoting Science Cafes with PBS’s NOVAscienceNOW. “Science Cafes are taking place in a lot of bars, coffeehouses, bookstores, churches, and even hardware stores. You want to go where your audience is naturally gathering anyway,” he said. “If you want teens to show up, you may have to consider whether you want to meet at a bar. But you can choose a library or some other place. Where and when you have your meetings will help determine the demographics.”

Wiehe said “field research” (i.e., checking out the local bars) is necessary to help choose a location. But the main goal of Science Cafes is to reach out to new audiences of people who don’t normally talk about science.

Surveys of Science Café attendees are overwhelmingly positive about the experience, with comments like, “I love coming to these. Please do this more!” and “Beer + Intellectual Stimulation = Fun.”

To keep the size intimate, the Chicago group has resorted to requiring tickets (free) to attend. They have 385 people registered on their email list, but want to limit attendance at any one event to 50-70 people.

R. J. Wyatt from the Southern California Academy of Sciences says for their Science Cafes, he likes to get people to consider alternate possibilities. “Sometimes we want to cover topics that are edgy and confrontational,” he said. “If we can assuage anyone’s fears, and get them fascinated about science you can shift people’s thinking in how they think about themselves and their world.”

Venerable cosmologist Michael Turner offered a speaker’s perspective on how to best choose a speaker.

“It’s a theorem that someone who gives a good public lecture is not necessarily a good Café Scientifique choice,” he said. “You’re not doing a lecture. It has to be spontaneous and extraordinarily flexible. Shorter is better, and if you’re talking about astronomy you can just show astronomical pictures, and do a four star presentation.”

Turner added, “Loose ends are really important. If you’ve explained everything and its absolutely perfect, then there will be no questions and no follow up. There has to be some ‘hanging chads’ to get people engaged.”

For more information about finding or starting a Science Café, see the links above, or NOVAscienceNOW’s Science Cafe page.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also is the host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast and works with Astronomy Cast. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

john June 4, 2008 at 6:01 PM

I believe ‘science in the pub’ is the australian equivalent. It seems to work well. I believe that it was taken from ‘spirituality in the pub’ a church based outreach. If it works and opens peoples’ minds, use it. Lots of success. (note; a pub is similar to a bar in the USA.

Drew June 4, 2008 at 7:26 PM

I could have told you this! When I was going to school for my Physics B.S. at the University of Arizona, we had a pair of events called “Solid State” and “Liquid State” (Gaseous State never happened and would probably be a bad idea ;-) Solid State was set up by the undergrads in the Society of Physics Students. Every so often, a professor was treated to dinner at a local restaurant. In return, we could spend the time chatting about classes, research, or really anything. The grad students (being of drinking age) held Liquid State, and no doubt you can figure out for yourself that alcohol was involved…

These are fantastic ways to make science less intimidating and more accessible, and I recommend this sort of engagement for everyone from high school students to Ph.D. candidates to soccer moms.

Great idea! I just wish it was happening in Denver where I am now… :-(

Peace

Chuck Lam June 5, 2008 at 6:17 AM

The science community is on the right track with their thoughts to advance interest in science. This cafe and bar thing is ok for adults, but doesn’t reach far enough back to the kids in grade school on up. The educators and politicians who are responsible for curriculum design are the guys the science promoters should be leaning on. I’m convinced life-long interest in science or any discipline can be culvitated starting in kindergarten. Considering our ability to animate low cost video snipits, it’s criminal that we are not focusing on the opportunity to educate with this media. If Washington all the way down to the local school board level don’t get their collective acts together, our nation will be subservient to the rapidly emerging countries to whom we are gifting our manufacturing base.

Kevin White June 5, 2008 at 6:14 AM

It sounds excellent! I imagine finding the right person or people might be difficult, however.

mike June 5, 2008 at 11:03 AM

I was immediately persuaded!

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