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Science Cafés Hit the Spot

Casual settings draw the public into conversations about chemistry

by Linda Wang
March 16, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 11

Community Chemistry
Credit: Carol Johnson
Local section members and the public meet at a local hardware store to talk about the chemistry of paint.
Credit: Carol Johnson
Local section members and the public meet at a local hardware store to talk about the chemistry of paint.

YOU WOULDN'T normally expect to find American Chemical Society members gathered for a local section meeting in the middle of a hardware store. But that's where 15 members of the Red River Valley Section and 60 members of the community came together one chilly evening in January 2008 to hear T. Howard Killilea, research director at the coatings company Valspar, talk about the chemistry of paint. Many members of the audience stayed well past the end of the program to share with each other their own experiences with paints.

Tips For A Successful Science Café

  • Pick a venue that can appeal to a wide variety of people.
  • Choose a speaker who can talk about science in lay language.
  • Keep the presentation short (less than 15 minutes) and use the rest of the time for dialogue between the speaker and the audience.
  • Designate a moderator who can keep the conversation on track.
  • Take advantage of resources such as the ACS Speaker Service and clips from the "NOVA scienceNOW" series.
  • Limit the attendance to 100 people to keep the feeling of intimacy.
  • Relax and have fun!

Since 2007, ACS local sections have been holding science cafés to engage the public in conversations about chemistry in casual settings. "Science cafés give the local sections a chance to have a different type of interaction with the public," says LaTrease E. Garrison, assistant director of ACS's Department of Local Section & Community Activities. "And it puts the public at ease, allowing them to talk more casually about the science."

So far, roughly half of ACS's 189 local sections have organized or have committed to organizing a science café.

Victoria J. Gelling, past chair of the Red River Valley Section and organizer of the science café at Scheels hardware store, in Fargo, N.D., remembers worrying whether anyone would show up. The event turned out to be a huge hit, however, because it had all the necessary ingredients for a successful science café: a unique venue, an interesting topic, an engaging speaker, and a captive audience of chemistry enthusiasts. "It far exceeded my expectations," says Gelling, who is an assistant professor in the department of coatings and polymeric materials at North Dakota State University.

The science café movement began in Leeds, England, in 1998. Cafés Scientifiques, as they're called there, provided a place where, "for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology," according to the website.

The concept spread across the U.K., and soon similar gatherings began taking place elsewhere, including the U.S. For example, Roald Hoffmann, Nobel Laureate and Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor Emeritus of Humane Letters at Cornell University, puts on his wildly popular "Entertaining Science" program on the first Sunday of every month at New York City's Cornelia Street Café, in Greenwich Village.

ACS partnered with Howard Hughes Medical Institute's "Ask-A-Scientist" question-and-answer website and organized its first science café during the 2006 fall national meeting in San Francisco. About 90 scientists and nonscientists showed up at a local coffeehouse to hear about the science of fuel cells.

ON THE BASIS of the event's success, the ACS Committee on Local Section Activities began offering minigrants of $500 to encourage local sections to organize their own science cafés. The committee awarded approximately 60 grants in both 2007 and in 2008. The grants cover, among other things, the costs of advertising, rental fees, and food. "It's seed money to get them started," Garrison says.

Gelling's science café on paint chemistry in Scheels hardware store is just one of many creative ideas local sections have had for science cafés. The San Gorgonio Section, for example, hosted a science café on the chemistry of wine at a winery; the Rochester Section organized a science café on the chemistry of porcelain at an art gallery; and the Chemical Society of Washington, D.C., put on a presentation about the chemistry of chocolate and gave free samples to attendees.

The North Central Oklahoma Section is organizing its first science café this May; attendees will gather at a pizza parlor to learn about the chemistry of cheese.

Science cafés can help diversify a local section's programming and create more value for its members, Garrison says. "It can attract that local section member who's not necessarily interested in a meeting," she adds. "They, too, want to be in an environment just to talk about science."

So far, these science cafés have mostly been one-time events. ACS hopes, however, that as local section organizers become more comfortable planning cafés, they will incorporate them as a regular part of their programming.

The Rochester Section is doing just that. Since 2007, the section has organized seven science cafés. D. Richard Cobb, past chair of the section, says the key to keeping the science cafés going is to get members involved in organizing them. That way, there are new ideas for topics and locations, he says, adding that the local section's role should be to support the volunteer organizers and to help them publicize the event.

Science cafés are an easy and effective way for local sections to reach out to the community. "We have the knowledge base in our membership to do this," Garrison says. "It's just a matter of letting people know that this is another way of sharing what you know with nonscientists."

To apply for a science café minigrant, visit (click on "Local Sections," scroll down and click on "Science Café"). For more information on how to organize a science café, visit



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