A movement to spread scientific learning in a casual environment that started in Britain in the late 1990s has gotten a foothold in the United States. At science cafés, adults gather at a restaurant, bar or other nonacademic spot to listen to a presentation on a scientific topic while enjoying their favorite beverage.
Kathy Savage, science teacher at Oviedo High School in Oviedo, Fla., thought a similar program could work in her school. With the sponsorship of the Florida Academy of Sciences and assistance from other science teachers and the student members of the school’s chapter of the National Science Honor Society, the first science café was held in September 2008. The program took off immediately. Now, says Savage, “I am absolutely amazed at how well these cafés are both received and attended.”
Cafés are held monthly, about half an hour after the end of the school day. The format is simple: Over cake and punch, students listen to a speaker and then ask questions. In the first year, topics ranged from Neanderthals to invasive species.
Savage identifies five main reasons why these science cafés are important:
- They put “real faces” to science (which she contrasts with “the typically geeky males in many of the videos or their aging and irrelevant teachers”).
- They show students that science is something “real people” do.
- They show real-life applications for science.
- They give students opportunities to meet scientists and persons who use science in their professions—and who may be important contacts for them later.
- They serve as a “cheerleading platform” for motivating students to consider majoring in a science-related field in college.
Most of the program’s speakers have been professors or graduate students from the nearby University of Central Florida. Savage says that the school was “super lucky,” however, to have had two big-name speakers in the program’s first year: Jan Garavaglia, Orange County’s medical examiner and star of Discovery Health Channel’s reality show Dr. G.: Medical Examiner, and Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.
A highlight for Savage came during a café given by a local man who runs a multimillion-dollar laser technology business. In describing how a laser works he wrote “c = l x n” (speed of light = wavelength x frequency) on the whiteboard and then referred to that equation several times. “We had recently finished an extensive lesson using that very equation,” says Savage of one of her classes. “One student raised his hand and asked, ‘Do you actually use that equation?’ to which the speaker replied, ‘Every day.’” Savage reports that the students were “flabbergasted” by this reply but also “a little impressed with themselves that they actually knew some ‘real science.’”
Science cafés for kids have appeared in other places as well, including several high schools in Portland, Ore.