Previous Contents Next
Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2010
DOI: 10.5062/F4QC01D6

URLs in this document have been updated. Links enclosed in {curly brackets} have been changed. If a replacement link was located, the new URL was added and the link is active; if a new site could not be identified, the broken link was removed.


Developing a Science Café Program for Your University Library

Jeanine Marie Scaramozzino
College of Science and Mathematics Librarian
School of Education Librarian

Catherine Trujillo
Special Collections and Exhibits Library Assistant

California Polytechnic State University
San Luis Obispo, California

Copyright 2010, Jeanine Marie Scaramozzino and Catherine Trujillo. Used with permission.


The Science Café is a national movement that attempts to foster community dialog and inquiry on scientific topics in informal venues such as coffee houses, bookstores, restaurants and bars. The California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Robert E. Kennedy Library staff have taken the Science Café model out of bars and cafes and into the university's library. They have created an outreach opportunity as the campus community comes together to share and discuss faculty research, student work, and outside speakers' knowledge. The Science Café programs encourage open, easy-to-understand conversation exploring scientific and interdisciplinary topics in an attempt to build connections among disciplines. Cal Poly's Science Café is unique as it is one of the first to be held in an academic setting and the only Science Café within 200 miles of the campus. The program's development is described below.


Science Café events take scientists out of their labs and create a forum where they communicate their work in an accessible way to non-scientists throughout a community. Within the Science Café trend, some are connected with a university or research facility, but most events are off campus. The program was modeled after

The objective of the Science Café program, by definition an informal learning environment, is to foster understanding and appreciation across the socio-intellectual division between science and society (Nielsen 2005). Science learning programs like these, which take place in schools and science-rich institutions and include organized activities that feed or stimulate science specific interests, have been found to positively influence academic achievement for students (Bell et al. 2009).

The Science Café concept encourages scientists to make science more accessible to society (Mutheu & Wanjala 2009). The Cafés seem to have hit a "sweet spot" in adult science education, offering access to cutting-edge discoveries and the scientists who make them, minus the notes and tests required in school (Ferris 2007).

As the program was being developed at Cal Poly, other Science Café organizers provided feedback about the concept of having the program on campus as opposed to a venue off campus. It was suggested that an off-campus setting helps foster dialogue and discussion by bridging the gap between experts and the community at large, in an informal and comfortable setting, while an on-campus setting could be perceived as intimidating. After much consideration, it was decided that the target audience would be the Cal Poly campus community (though off-campus community members would be welcomed) and the Science Café would be held in the library's new Learning Commons café. The library's café offers food and coffee for attendees (helping to make the library space inviting and comfortable) and it is an on-campus, neutral space shared by all.

The Cal Poly Science Café's informal speaker series was expanded to the arts, humanities, and sciences. The purpose was to encourage open, easy-to-understand conversations that explore a variety of topics and interdisciplinary interactions. An additional goal was to recapture the fun associated with learning that students often lose beneath the pressure of papers and grades.

A working group developed a program plan which included a vision statement, series program descriptions, informal learning objectives (that support the university's learning objectives), and described the ultimate goal of the program as supporting participants' opportunities to learn about cutting edge research in an accessible format. An advisory committee of faculty and key campus administrators was established to ensure general campus support and guarantee that topics and speakers would adequately represent the expansive interests across campus. Students were given the opportunity to contribute through various activities, including crafting the Science Café logo and participating as event speakers.

Researchers and scholars on campus were encouraged to participate, by promoting the venue as one in which they had the freedom to share scientific research and knowledge, provide outreach to non-majors, and comply with research grant outreach and retention/promotion requirements. Off campus researchers were invited to campus to share their enthusiasm for science and gauge public reaction to their research, or in some cases, to speak at the Science Café in addition to their participation in other events on campus.

It has been possible for the Cal Poly Science Café to organize events without major expenditure on speakers or marketing. Connections with faculty, students, and the community led to excellent moderators and speakers without paying honoraria or travel expenses.

A variety of topics have been presented in various formats as part of the program, with speakers ranging from established national speakers to Cal Poly faculty and students:


The goal of the Cal Poly's Science Café is to provide opportunities for participants to learn about cutting edge research in an informal setting. In addition it provides presenters a venue to share their research with a general audience. Participant feedback has been invaluable as a source of information, allowing organizers to learn constantly and make adjustments to programming.

Assessment of this program has been challenging due to its informal nature. Though it is crucial to get feedback, in the spirit of the program, it was deemed inappropriate to have written assessment tools at the end of the programs. Since the inception of the program a number of tools have been offered to presenters and participants to provide feedback: comment cards located on tables around the event, posting to the Science Café blog, commenting on the Science Café Facebook page, etc. Additional information was received via e-mails and word of mouth.

Feedback from comment cards, blog postings and Facebook comments has been very limited, although the feedback has been positive. Quotes include: "This is great, creating a forum for people (especially non-biology majors) to have a listen to what Darwinism is"; "great information, ideas and story"; "excellent idea" [nanotechnology]; "bucky balls rock."

In order to more actively solicit feedback, participant and presenter surveys were deployed online in late Fall 2009 to gather data on their perspectives of the program. The survey questions were loosely based on the data presented in a NOVA science {NOW Science Cafés Evaluation report} completed in May 2007 by Goodman Research Group. The participant survey consisted of questions that focused on the influence of the Science Café on participants' science interest, learning, and behavior and the presenter survey focused on their personal experience regarding the Science Café.

Science Café Presenter Survey Results

For most Cal Poly Science Café presenters this was their first experience with any Science Café. Over 70% of the presenters had never attended or been involved with a Science Café. Almost 90% had only learned of Science Café because organizers contacted them. The primary benefit of participating at the Science Café for all presenters was the opportunity to educate the community about their scholarship (Figure 1).

Though only slightly more than half of presenters would be interested in presenting again (63%), they were likely to recommend presenting to a colleague (75%). This corresponded with 88% of presenters ranking their overall satisfaction with their Science Café experience as a 4 or 5, on a 5-point scale with 1 being not at all satisfied and 5 being extremely satisfied.

They were asked if they would do anything differently if they were to present again. There were only a few comments, e.g., "I would":

Science Café Attendee Survey Results

The printed promotional materials and word of mouth were the most successful means by which the attendees heard about the Science Café. The combined web presence of the Library's web page, Facebook page/ad and blog were also identified by attendees as additional sources of information (Figure 2).

The majority of attendees were intrigued by the topic and half were interested in learning something new (Figure 3). After attending a Science Café program, almost 85% of attendees discussed the content with friends, family, or colleagues. In addition they visited web sites and independently read more about the topic through books, newspapers, and scientific journals. Overall satisfaction with the programming was extremely positive with more than 85% of all survey attendees reporting they would attend another Science Café and would recommend attending to another person.

Attendee Interview Results

In addition to the online surveys, a small representative sample of attendees, including students, staff, faculty and community members, were interviewed in Spring 2010.

There were a number of important pieces of data that was not captured in the online survey. Attendees said that they: took away basic key concepts from the programs but depending on the topic some of the theories were difficult to understand; felt that organizers needed to promote an environment that was less intimidating so they would feel more at ease to participate in discussion and ask questions; found that food was the biggest contributor in making the physical space informal. In addition, only half of interviewees said that they were familiar with the University's Learning Objectives and that one of the goals of the Science Café was to support those objectives.

Overall Findings

After reviewing all available feedback, there were a couple of consistent points of program success and areas that need improvement. The programs that had food and an element of "fun" (i.e., students explaining their human-powered vehicle, a visit from Charles Darwin, using balloons to understand nanotechnology, etc.) generated the strongest positive comments from participants via all feedback channels. However, it is clear that the organizer's expectations of the presenters and the presenters' expectations of the programs' format often did not match. This communication might be improved by providing presenters a formal set of guidelines which outline the program format in detail, invite them to attend a Science Café before they present and/or provide them a video of "exemplary" past presentations. This issue was echoed by most attendees, as their comments for improvement of programs surrounded the lack of some presenter's interaction with the audience and their poor presentation style.

Best Practices/Advice


The Science Café program at Cal Poly's Kennedy Library has been a successful collaboration between the library, campus community and researchers. The library is gaining visibility and credibility by: sparking conversations across and beyond the Cal Poly community; creating an intellectual ambiance that is relaxing and stimulating; fostering a spirit of open, friendly, and inclusive discussion; creating opportunities for student participation; and engaging students and faculty outside of the classroom.

There has been extensive discussion in the profession about the role libraries will fill in the future and how this role will be fulfilled. As libraries extend their identities beyond traditional library boundaries and present as both physical and conversational spaces, they expand the value of the library and change patron perspectives while maintaining the mission of the library to promote and support learning. Science Cafés hosted by libraries are an effective example of this transition and a means of engaging a community.


Bell P., Lewenstein B., Shouse A.W. & Feder M.A. (eds). 2009. Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits Committee on Learning Science in Informal Environments. Washington (DC): The National Academies Press.

Ferris, D. 2007. Science Cafés tap nation's fascination with research and discoveries. Wired. [Internet]. [Cited 2009 Oct 16]. Available from: {}

Mutheu J. & Wanjala R. 2009. The public, parasites and coffee: the Kenyan Science Café concept. Trends in Parasitology 25(6):245.

Nielsen, K.H. 2005. Between understanding and appreciation: current science communication in Denmark. Journal of Science Communication 4(4):1-9. Available from:


This work was supported by California Polytechnic State University's Robert E. Kennedy Library. We would like to thank Dean Michael Miller for his vision and commitment to this program. Associate Dean Anna Gold served as the convener of the Working Group and the Advisory Group during the first year, and continues to collaborate with Cynthia Perrine, the new Science Café coordinator. Anna Gold also provided insightful editorial comments and suggestions on the draft of this manuscript. Cynthia Perrine led a successful second year program and we appreciate her assistance with promoting the online assessment surveys. We also thank the Dean's Administrative staff (in particular Lynda Alamo and Susan Bratcher), Facilities and Information Technology Services staff and students (especially Dale Kohler and Jane Worthy), the Science Café Advisory Committee, and all the Science Café presenters and moderators for their hard work in making this program a success.

Previous Contents Next

W3C 4.0