Experimenting With Space and Time at a Science Cafe

by Linda Bowden (ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center/Leahy Center for Lake Champlain, Burlington, VT)

Our Café Scientifque programs were designed to engage adults in casual conversation about critical issues in science. To that end, we have experimented with ways to engage adults in conversations and discover ways they’d feel comfortable in our Museum space. Using questionnaires at each Café Scientifique, we have gotten audience feedback on different room set ups and table arrangements, even the positioning of our speaker. Now, when guests arrive, we have café tables set up with chairs to create a small group or bistro feel. Keeping in mind that we are trying to keep our programming different than University programs, we have a cash bar and have asked our presenters not to use power point. We have a sponsor helping with the supply of hors d’oeuvres.  When guests arrive, they mingle, get a drink and a nibble and choose a seat. On each table we place a menu of thoughtful questions. These were developed with the speaker and are available on-line along with research links about the topic. After a brief introduction of the speaker, including their biography and qualifications, our speaker talks for 20-25 minutes. Next, there is a 15-minute break where we encourage guests to participate in the conversation by sitting in small groups, acquainting themselves with others and developing questions together and getting another drink.

At the Science Café International Workshop I attended in Washington, D.C., evaluation statistics noted that adults need time to assimilate information. Feeling relaxed and having the table questions as prompts has enabled our participants to get an idea of where the speaker would be heading with the topic and gives them a way to begin shared conversation on an equal footing. When the speaker returns, folks at the tables are encouraged to ask questions by raising their hands, submitting self-generated questions or asking the questions on the table. The moderator’s job is to keep the flow of conversation moving forward, to allow many voices from around the room to be heard (we use a hand microphone), and to delve into people’s experiences and observations. The conversation usually goes for 45 minutes but guests have been seen still huddled in groups outside in the parking lot long after the program has ended.

The programs were also designed to create an accessible entry point into sophisticated science content. Therefore, we have focused on topical subjects that would provoke conversations during and beyond the event. We have developed techniques to select and to “train” our presenters to speak in dynamic, accessible ways and to give shorter, punchier presentations than they would in academic settings. We have developed our web pages on each event to include more background information that attendees could access before and afterwards. Our research has shown that our guests want to continue their own learning about the topic before and after the evening program. Changes to our format, desire for more information and topic suggestions resulted from our audience questionnaires. We get almost 80% return on questionnaires given to our guests and tell them of our changes to the format before each new session.

Linda Bowden is the Lifelong Learning Coordinator at ECHO Lake Aquarium & Science Center at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont.  She is also a member of the Science Cafe Advisory Board for NOVA Education.