ScienceCafes.org For Organizers
Welcome to the page designed specifically for café organizers. Here, you can find everything you need to know to start a brand new Science Café, how to host a Science Café event, how to evaluate your café after the fact, and how to further your café and make it sustainable into the future.
Also, check out this video playlist for a rundown of the essentials of organizing and hosting a great Science Café.
Start a Café (Pt. 1)
Anyone can start a science café! Some café organizers are associated with universities, museums, or professional scientific societies. Others organize a café because they see a need for one in their neighborhood, or they enjoy talking about science, or because it’s a fun way to combine science and socializing.
Organizing a science café doesn't take an enormous effort or a big budget. In fact, large, complicated, or high-profile events can detract from the casual, intimate café atmosphere. While attendance at a café meeting may range from only 20 to 80 people, the experience is far more personal and often more meaningful than that of a crowded lecture hall or stuffy speaker series. Often the success of one science café leads to an ongoing series of cafés.
Start a Café
Understanding your audience will help make your café a success. In the beginning, you might want to gather a few likely attendees together to talk about what topics, scientists, venues, etc. they would find interesting. Or, if you have an ongoing series of cafés, convene an informal “focus group” now and then for feedback and fresh ideas.
But how do you find your target audience? In targeting an audience, consider parameters such as age, ability level, location, and even other interests and hobbies. Your target audience may be very broad and include people who are not already science enthusiasts, or you may want to reach out to a specific audience. Of course, cafés are open to all. Choosing a target audience is not about whom you will let in, it’s about whom you are trying to attract.
Certain topics may help you reach out to groups that may not be science oriented. For instance, a Science Café on fuel cells may be an opportunity to partner with a group of driving enthusiasts. A café on food security may be interesting to local gardeners, farmers, and locavores. Be flexible and get creative. Your café will benefit both from the growth of your audience and the diversity of opinion they present.
Create a budget
Science Cafés are designed to be inexpensive to plan and run. The most common café expenses are related to promotion, such as copying flyers. Some cafés charge a fee or ask for donations to cover their costs, but most are free.
Cafés in the United States typically do not pay an honorarium or fee for speakers or for the venue. Some cafés have successfully negotiated with the venue for a revenue-sharing arrangement or in-kind donation of free appetizers for the audience. Point out to the venue owner or manager that the science café will introduce the venue to many new people as well as bring in additional revenue.
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, 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.
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.”
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.
Start a Café (Pt. 3)
Publicize/Promote Your Café
- Here are some ways to get the word out:
- Register your café so people can find it on the map.
- Make generous and constant use of social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, craigslist, Meet-Up, Blogspot, and so on.
- Set up a listserv, either as you begin your café or after your first meeting, so that you can send notices about upcoming and related events.
- Send notices to online and print local calendar listings. Many newspapers and TV and radio stations will list events for free, as do websites such as patch.com.
- Post flyers where they are most likely to be seen by your intended audience: restaurants, pubs, supermarkets, coffeehouses, convenience stores, cybercafés, and laundromats are just some of the local businesses you can use. Don’t forget libraries, university and college campuses, student unions, and other public gathering spaces.
- If you plan on using NOVA or PBS video, contact your local PBS station to see if they can help you publicize your event.
- You don’t need to be a designer to make an attractive flyer or poster! Register your café for sample flyers and other promotional materials on the Grow a Café section of this site. You may also want to use sites such as iStockphoto and Shutterstock as sources of free or inexpensive images to illustrate your flyer.
- Ask your funders, partners, and sponsors to reach out to their members in e-newsletters and other communications.
Prepare The Scientist
The guest scientist helps to set the overall tone of the event. Don’t be shy about doing some coaching!
- Be specific about the scientist’s role. He or she is not there to give a speech, lecture, or formal presentation. (There are no podiums or PowerPoint slides at a Science Café!)
- Describe the informal atmosphere that you are trying to create. Remind the scientist that the conversation will be free-ranging and fun.
- The scientist’s presentation should be a brief overview or conversation starter, no more than 10 minutes.
- Ask the scientist to include some open-ended questions so that the audience will feel comfortable about starting to talk. You may want to review the questions and add suggestions.
- Help the moderator and scientist to establish a rapport. Introduce them just before the café or a few days ahead of time. You might want to treat them to a meal or a drink so they can spend a few moments chatting.
- Share your promotional materials ahead of time with the scientist to make sure your description of the topic is accurate. Similarly, review the video and any handouts with the scientist beforehand.
- Register your café for more information about working with presenters.
Volunteers can be a valuable resource as you plan, set up, and run a Science Café. You can find volunteers at local universities and science organizations and through postings on electronic message boards.
Volunteers can fill a variety of roles alongside the coordinator and/or moderator that may include:
- Treasurer: handles finances and tracks expenses;
- Media coordinator: manages promotion and press;
- Event manager: works with venue owner or manager;
- Presenter manager: helps with details such as transportation of the presenter and making sure presenter is comfortable;
- Photographer/Videographer/Podcaster: records and/or broadcasts the event.
Meet with volunteers beforehand to be sure they understand the format, the goals of the café, and what they’ll be doing. Here are some things to discuss in advance:
- Mission: Share your vision for the Science Cafés and what you want to accomplish.
- Tasks/skills: A well-defined set of tasks helps avoid confusion. If the tasks seem vague or too broad, it may make people less likely to volunteer.
- Time commitment: Estimate the number of hours an assigned task will take and be sure to set check-in points and deadlines.Schedule and arrangements: Clarify when and where the work needs to be done. Does it involve travel? Weekdays, evenings, or weekends? Can it be done at home?
- Contact information: Be sure you know how to contact the volunteers. If you have a lot of volunteers, you may want to arrange for a volunteer coordinator to help you keep track of people and tasks.
Create Materials and Gather Supplies
Depending on your topic, the venue, and the guest scientist, you may want to develop handouts and/or trivia questions.
Be sure to bring:
- sign-in sheet to collect names and email addresses,
- evaluation survey or questionnaire,
- pens and pencils,
- audiovisual equipment,
- flyers or announcements of the next science café.
Host a Café
It’s the big night! As the café begins, don’t forget to take a deep breath, relax, and have fun! For a more detailed agenda, see a Sample Schedule, a resource on this site.
Break the Ice
Strangers often need an icebreaker to help them jump into a conversation. Of course, food and drink often help! Here are some other icebreakers you can use.
- As people arrive, hold a quick trivia contest to get them talking together and thinking about a topic. (For sample trivia questions, register your café and check out “Using trivia” in Grow a Café.)
- Be creative with your introductions—and make them short and sweet. Find an interesting fact about the scientist to share or a provocative aspect of the topic. (Using humor always helps.)
- It is amazing how quickly a crowded room will pay attention when a video begins. A short clip from NOVA can provide brief background information and stimulate ideas and questions. For more about using video, register your café and check out “Using Technology” in the Grow a Café section of this site.
- A short 5–10 minute break after the scientist’s presentation may allow people to chat and connect with each other.
- If there’s an awkward silence at first, have a question of your own ready to get things going.
Whether you or someone else is the moderator, use these tips to get the most out of the evening.
- Arrive early to establish a rapport and plan of action with the scientist.
- Pay attention to the audience. You’ll sense when an idea has grabbed the group’s interest or when people are disengaged.
- Keep a low profile. You may be tempted to answer questions or express your opinions, but your job is to let others talk.
- When a particularly good question comes up, try having the audience answer it.
- Polling the audience, electronically or by a show of hands, is a good way to keep people engaged and encourage them to offer their opinions.
- It’s a sure sign of a good Science Café if audience members begin interrupting the moderator!
End the event according to the schedule or when people start getting restless or disinterested.
- Be sure to announce upcoming Science Café events and topics before people leave.
- Don’t forget to collect the sign-in sheet with email addresses.
- If you want to evaluate the café via a survey or questionnaire, distribute it so that people have plenty of time to fill it out.
- After the event is over, some people may stay to chat. Encourage the scientist to mingle and continue the conversation. Some of the best interactions occur in these smaller groups.
Evaluate a Café
Find out what worked and what didn’t so that you can make improvements. (You may also want to or need to document the results for a sponsor or partner.) Visiting another café to see how it works can also provide useful feedback.
During the evening, pay close attention to and make notes on the following:
- What aspects of the event seem to actively engage everyone?
- Are people relaxed and comfortable, squirming in their seats, or barely awake?
- Are there prolonged stretches with just one voice speaking?
- Is there a moment when everyone becomes very animated? What made that moment happen?
- What were the polling results? Was a particular question or topic more popular or more likely to get a response from the audience?
Register your café to find sample questionnaires and other evaluation information in the Grow a Café section of this site.
To read profiles of other cafés, check out the Café Stories and Cafés in the News (coming back soon!) sections.
Further Your Café
Themed cafés provide background resources, discussion questions, videos, and more to help you focus the conversation in your café. NOVA provides resources to run “themed” Science Cafés which you can find here.
Trivia questions that mix popular culture references with science questions related to the café’s topic can contribute to the lighthearted and inclusive café spirit. Trivia contests are also a good way to get people talking as they begin to gather for your café. Prizes, such as science-themed giveaways (videos, books, etc.) or a gift certificate to the venue, add to the fun.
Set some simple ground rules, such as no smart phones or other electronic devices to find answers. Whether you make up your own questions or not, be sure that the questions and answers are clear and correct—ambiguous ones can create an unnecessary distraction at this point in the evening. Remember that the trivia contest is the appetizer, not the main course. Keep it short!
There are many ways to hold a trivia contest. Begin by distributing blank sheets of paper and pencils. You can then:
- Call out the questions and have people to write down answers on their own. When you reveal the answers, have each person score his or her neighbor’s answer sheet.
- Ask people to form teams (or create impromptu teams yourself), and assign names or numbers for each team. Call out the questions. Teams have a set amount of time (e.g., 60 seconds, 3 minutes, etc.) to write their answers down on a slip of paper, that includinges their team’s name. You (or a volunteer) will score the results and announce the winning team either before the café starts or at the end of the event.
To see sample trivia questions—and inspire you to write your own—click here.
Your local PBS television and/or radio station may have resources to help you promote and expand the reach of your café, especially if you are using NOVA videos or other video assets connected to a PBS show.
Contact the Outreach or Station Relations department at your station, via the Website, by email, or phone. They may be able to help you promote an upcoming café on air, provide handouts, guides, or videos, recommend a scientist or expert, or even broadcast a café.
To find the PBS station nearest you, click on the PBS Station Finder.
Using Technology: Integrating Video
Although the focus of a science café meeting is human interaction, a short video can help provide quick background info (thus freeing the scientist to focus on the specific issues that he or she is most interested in) and stimulate dialogue. Since TVs are standard in so many pubs and other locations, you can easily make use of videos.
Video is also a powerful way to get the attention of people who just happen to be at the venue, and to bring them into the discussion. (Even people who may ignore a moderator’'s introduction will often be drawn in by a video.) Mixing video with the scientist’s presentation also accommodates different learning styles in among the audience.
Here are tips for using video at your café:
- Choose Be sure that the venue you have chosen has a venue with audio-visual capabilities. Test them beforehand—even before booking the venue, if possible—to make sure they work properly.
- Use video at the beginning of a café meeting to kick off a topic. (Before the café meeting, queue up the video segment, identify the chapter or time code, and set the volume.)
- If your clip starts in the middle of a story, you may need to make a quick intro to set the context.
- Keep the video presentation short—five minutes or less. Anything longer may lose your audience and divert energy away from the guest scientist.
- When you select the segment, note where it starts. If it’s in the middle of a story, you may need to provide a quick intro.
Videos from NOVA work particularly well in Science Cafés. View them online here. If you need a DVD to show a specific NOVA segment at your science café, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Podcasts are a great way to expand the reach of your science café. There may be a podcaster in your area who covers community and/or science topics, and who is interested in interviewing you or your presenter, or who may want to include aing video of your the café in action. as part of his or her podcast.
You may want to start your own podcast and featureing interviews with presenters and audience members, perhaps capturing before and after reactions. the audience.
Check out these links on podcasting equipment and an in-depth tutorial on producing a podcast.
Check out and use the videos in the following databases in your cafés:
Find NOVA clips as well as examples of cafes in action.
See video from NOVA’s programs as well as other interesting interviews and clips that might spark conversation!