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Classy conversations: exploring Café Sci

6 Jul, 2010
Café Sci in Uganda

Café Sci in Uganda

By Catherine Whitlock

Café Sci gives scientists a chance to escape the bench and get into schools, and gives students a chance to discuss scientific topics of their choice informally. Catherine Whitlock took a look at Cafés in the UK and Uganda to find out more about this movement.

It’s early afternoon, and 40 animated students stream into the light-filled atrium at Stockley Academy, a secondary school in west London. They are gathering for Junior Café Sci, a chance to hear about and discuss some novel, and perhaps controversial, science issues. There’s no pressure to be quiet though, as informal chat is what Café Sci is all about – a chance to air their thoughts about science freely.

Stockley is one of the latest recruits to the Café Sci movement, which was launched in the UK in 2005. And the idea of taking scientists out of the lab and into schools seems to have global appeal.

Supported by the Wellcome Trust, Betty Kituyi has been hard at work setting up Café Scis in 18 schools in Uganda, East Africa. The first was held in 2009. Kituyi’s background in science and education meant that she was excited at the prospect of productive discussions about science. “This is something Uganda really needs,” she says. “There are lots of new technologies available, like genetically modified crops. People are concerned about these and want to know how they will affect their lives.”

In Uganda, where access to computer facilities and the internet is not always possible, Café Sci’s user-friendly way of interacting with science and scientists has been welcomed with open arms. “Students are learning that science does not have all the answers, but they learn what questions need to be asked,” Kituyi adds.

After attending a recent Café in Uganda on black holes, the founder of the adult Café Scientifique movement, Duncan Dallas, was impressed: “Science teaching in Uganda is traditionally focused on a one-way transmission of facts and here the students were given the freedom to talk. The discussion went on for about an hour, constantly backwards and forwards.” Kituyi agrees that it’s an important shift: “When I introduced Café Sci in Uganda the headteachers were so impressed that something like this can be done outside the classroom.”

There are now plans for Cafés in local languages in Uganda (see ‘Speaking my language’, below), as well as an expansion into more schools, outside of Kampala.

Right ingredients

But what is the secret to a successful Café, whatever its location?

An emphasis on student involvement is important, meaning that students choose the topics and, in many cases, run their own Cafés. Any topic can be covered but they tend to be highly relevant, topical, controversial or all three. Students in Uganda may choose to focus on HIV/AIDS, for example, but there are also universal themes: topics such as the science of love, mobile phones and aliens are much in evidence.

The speakers are, of course, pivotal to the events. At the best-run Cafés, the speaker’s talk is just a small part: discussion is the main aim. “Speakers need only to present enough information to raise questions and comment from the audience,” says Dallas. Props can be a great asset. At Stockley’s Café, the speaker, Jaya Nemchand, a PhD student from Brunel University, produces some hip replacement joints and artificial knees that grab the students’ attention and help to illustrate the applications of her research.

Finally, the café-style environment, often with free drinks and snacks, makes both the speaker and students feel at home. In the open, welcoming space of the atrium at Stockley, free from the constraints of a classroom, students are more likely to interact.

Learning experience

In the UK, Café Sci is building strong links with the scientific community through organisations such as STEMNET and its Ambassadors scheme. Scientists – both in the UK and Uganda – welcome the opportunity to join in. Stephanie Burnett, a neuroscientist at University College London, is a regular speaker at events such as Café Sci. “It’s easy to forget how amazing your area is. It’s really interesting to talk to people who can help you grasp the bigger picture,” she says. “As a scientist you come away with a sense of renewed enthusiasm for your work.”

One Stockley student commented: “We’re learning from each Café experience what works and what doesn’t, but we like the freedom to experiment.” That’s not hard to believe – after all, how often do students get the opportunity to decide what topic to discuss, ask the questions they like and not be assessed at any stage in the process? It seems that students and scientists alike can only gain from this kind of café culture.

Speaking my language

In Uganda, Café Sci and adult Café Scientifique events are generally held in English. But, in areas where English is not widely spoken and where internet or library facilities are not available, Cafés are held in the native language. In recognition of Café Sci’s ability to extend access to scientific and health information, Christine Munduru from the Open Society Initiative for East Africa has been awarded a Wellcome Trust International Engagement Award to run native language evening Café Scis. These are held in central village spaces where the local brew, Malwa, is served.

The goal is to discuss scientific knowledge that is of direct use to the community. Past local-language Cafés have covered health-related topics, such as malaria in pregnancy, TB and the community, and HIV testing and counselling. The scope is broader than just health, extending to topics such as fire and safety information, and fish and poultry farming.

A brief history of Café Sci

On its website, Café Scientifique is described as “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”. It was the brainchild of Duncan Dallas, formerly head of the Leeds BBC Science Unit, who was inspired by the French Café Philosophique. In the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, BSE and GM food controversies, he saw Café Scientifique as an opportunity to foster relationships between the public and science. “Café Scientifique arose from concerns about how science is changing our world and how we relate to that as individuals and as a society,” he says.

The first Café was held in Leeds in 1998. Thanks to the work of Dallas and project director Mary Arber, there are now more than 50 running in the UK, with a strong presence in other countries around the world. They’re held in cafés, bars, theatres – anywhere outside of an academic context. Supported by funding from the Wellcome Trust, Café Scientifique was extended into UK schools in 2005, becoming Café Sci. There are now over 150 UK schools involved in the programme.

Have you been involved in Café Sci? Email and let us know your experiences.

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