On the day that NOVA's "Ultimate Mars Challenge" aired, I was invited to attend a modest little gathering held in its honor. It was one of those times when I realized that I was clearly the least knowledgeable person in the room. The other attendees included a quantum physicist and a group--a group--of advanced roboticists. It would have been easy for me to feel intimidated by the brainpower present in that room, but I wasn't. Because my friends are...well... friendly, and because the setting was casual, I felt totally comfortable, and was able to contribute to the discussion constructively, making the conversation rich in a way it likely would not have been had I been absent.
That's the idea behind science cafés. In a casual setting like a bar or café, members of a community come together to have a discussion around a scientific topic. Sometimes, these topics are formal science, like microbiology or physics, but just as often the events revolve around everyday science, like the science of cooking, brewing, or sports. An expert researcher opens up the event with a brief description of his or her area of study, and then the floor is open for questions and conversation.
NOVA has supported science cafés since 2004, and now we administer ScienceCafes.org, where you can tap into the international science café network of close to 300 registered cafés, find one near you, or find resources to help launch a new one. NOVA's education group produces new materials to support café organizers and speakers, from simple giveaways and promotional materials like coasters to full media clips of NOVA episodes that can be used to get the conversation started.
We believe that informal strategies for science education and literacy have unique benefits. In traditionally structured, lecture-style presentations, the direction of communication--the flow of information--is one-way. But for most of us, engagement on any subject, but particularly in science, is a two-way street. Scientists invested in outreach must be able not just to speak fluently and clearly about their work, but also listen and be relatable. If, as a scientist, you want your audience to be as invested as you are in your field of study, then it's absolutely crucial that you help them understand why what you do is important. The best way to do that is to let them ask you questions about it. Let them explore for themselves and learn how they relate to what you do.
It is in encouraging this sort of exchange that science cafés really shine. By keeping spirits casual and opening the floor to the audience rather than keeping the focus solely on the speaker, cafés make each attendee, no matter his or her initial understanding of the topic, more comfortable and more able to contribute to the discourse fully and without trepidation. Further, an effective speaker can gain incredible insight through audience input. Everyone is there with a purpose, and so all feel an increased sense of agency with regard to their own learning process. Attendees and speakers learn more, understand more deeply, and are more often inspired to share their newfound knowledge with others in the community.
This was certainly the case with me at our "Mars Party." My expert friends were not only knowledgeable, but also relatable, patient, and thorough. It was a powerful learning experience that I won't soon forget. If you aren't lucky enough to be invited to science-themed parties but are still interested in seeking out informal learning experiences, we at NOVA encourage you to visit ScienceCafes.org to find your local science café, or to start one of your own.