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Science Speaker Series Generates Appreciative Audience

Active science cafés in the United States

Active science cafés in the United States.

"I think I'm going through Ask a Scientist withdrawal," said Ray Block, a carpenter in Grand Marais, Minn. "When is Sea Grant coming back?"

Block was one of 720 people who joined the Ask a Scientist discussions held at the Blue Water Café in Grand Marais and the Amazing Grace Bakery and Café in Duluth. An average of 33 people participated in each of the 14 monthly dialogs Sea Grant hosted with sponsorship from WGBH-TV Boston.

"Eclectic" is a word some audience members use to describe this series of café conversations, which ran from April 2007 - May 2008. The topics ranged from comets, to smelt, to hibernation. An independent filmmaker from California struggled through a blizzard to talk about the economically and environmentally disastrous Salton Sea. A chemist ended up speaking street-preacher style on the sidewalk in Canal Park about sewage (he wasn't jettisoned from the café; it was just too gorgeous to sit inside). A sleep expert laughed about being surrounded by coffee drinkers at 7 p.m. On other evenings, participants passed around props used by the scientists to illustrate points: a bowl of Coco Puffs (which look remarkably like taconite pellets but weigh a lot less), a globe of Venus, and a toy squirrel.

After the audience warmed up to the topics with quizzes and kitschy theme prizes they often learned about topics with ramifications for Lake Superior’s coastal waters and communities, reflecting Minnesota Sea Grant's mission to facilitate interaction among the public and scientists to enhance communities, the environment and economies along Lake Superior and Minnesota's inland waters. The other science topics were simply too interesting and timely to ignore.

The audience was diverse and curious. Their ages ranged from infants to seniors. Their backgrounds ranged from vacationing families, to Goth teens, to National Academy of Science members. People came from afar for the series: a couple from North Dakota came to Duluth early specifically to hear about sleep, and several Canadians crossed the border to attend discussions in Grand Marais.

"People who attended often told us how grateful they were for the opportunity to discuss science," said Marie Zhuikov, Sea Grant's communications coordinator. "They also mentioned how much they enjoyed the fun and friendly atmosphere we tried to create. Because of the diversity of subjects, we drew an audience that didn't necessarily know that Sea Grant exists, let alone why."

The café partnerships were new and inspiring. Both the Blue Water Café and Amazing Grace donated space, and sometimes stayed open late and provided free coffee for the Ask a Scientist discussions.

"We're thrilled to have these dialogs going on at Amazing Grace," said John Ward, who handles booking for the café. "The owners envisioned having a great little café where people gather to talk about important subjects. Their dream came true!"

The Ask a Scientist series was conducted in the spirit of Café Scientifique, an international movement that began in the United Kingdom in 1998 to help society develop a better appreciation for science by breaking it free from a traditionally academic context. The University of Minnesota's Bell Museum of Natural History piloted science cafés in Duluth in 2006, hoping that a local organization would continue the effort and Minnesota Sea Grant accepted the challenge.

Minnesota Sea Grant is in the process of deciding what kinds of public outreach programs to offer in the future.

About Ask a Scientist

Sea Grant's free coffee house talks in Grand Marais and Duluth, Minn., featured a short presentation by an expert and opportunities to discuss burning questions. Occasionally, we showed clips from the public television series, NOVA scienceNOW, produced by WGBH-Boston, who helped fund the discussions.

Outcomes included:

  • 27 discussions

  • Media coverage extended the series' reach to a potential 3.3 million people and added up to an advertising value of $18,000.

  • A more scientifically informed public

  • New pages and links on the Minnesota Sea Grant Web site

  • Investigation into the accuracy of NOAA buoys

  • Invitation for speakers to present elsewhere

  • Researcher collaborations with North House Folk School, Grand Portage National Monument, and the Duluth Port Authority

By Sharon Moen
August 2008

Return to August 2008 Seiche

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