Conversations Abound

by Mary Kay Bates Ashland Science on Tap, Ashland, WI

Nestled on Wisconsin’s north coast on Lake Superior is Ashland, a town of 8600 residents with a history of mining, logging and paper mills. As those industries faded into the past, the population declined accordingly.

Now Ashland is a small city with a vibrant, can-do vibe, an active city government focused on the future, passionate residents and a surprisingly concentrated education and research center for such a population. Ashland is home to Northland College, rated one of the best environmental programs in the nation by several authorities, a Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College (WITC) campus, and the National Park Service’s Great Lakes Inventory and Monitoring Network. Within a 75-mile radius are six more college/university campuses ranged along the shore of Lake Superior. The surrounding area is rich in pristine forests, wetlands, rivers and inland lakes that are fiercely valued in different ways by the people in the region.

It turns out this is an effective mix for a very successful science café. Ashland Science on Tap started at the Deep Water Grille & South Shore Brewery in March 2011, and has consistently attracted crowds of 45 to 65 people each month. The restaurant/brewery provides the room and projector as well as excellent table service throughout the event. Speakers come from Northland College, the National Park Service, campuses of the University of Wisconsin System, the University of Minnesota-Duluth and a few biotechnology and engineering companies. Several of the speakers have volunteered, while others are directly recruited.

The community has embraced Ashland Science on Tap, with articles and monthly announcements in different online and print newspapers, and advertising by the chamber of commerce and the colleges. Email reminders are sent the week and the day before each event. Many people subscribe to the email list via the website at The restaurant/brewery posts flyers for each event in advance.

At each event, a moderator introduces the forum and then the speaker, emphasizing that the audience are really participants and should be thinking about questions, because it is that interaction that makes for a fun evening. Generally the speaker presents using slides for about 30 minutes, followed by questions and discussion that average about 1 hour more.
For the small community in Ashland, the keys to success for Science on Tap have been making people comfortable in a relaxed setting with easy parking and good food and beer, providing consistent advertising via email and newspapers, and presenting speakers who are excited about their topic and who can engage the audience to participate.

March 2012