Science Cafes Provide Unique Community-Based Learning Opportunity

Non-traditional Setting makes Science Accessible

Science Cafes, a grassroots movement to open science to everyone and to bring presentations and engaging conversations into casual community settings, have come to Western MA. Here we feature two that take place on Mondays in the Pioneer Valley…

For families living in western Massachusetts, there are lots of opportunities to learn about science topics present within our communities. Local museums offer endless science-related exhibits, and explorations of the biodiversity and natural history present within our local landscape take place year-round (we’re hardy in these parts!). However, opportunities to interact with actual scientists – the experts and researchers who make discoveries – are far fewer and further between. But now, thanks to two local Science Cafes, students can do just that!

In Hadley, the OEB Science Cafe brings monthly events to Esselon Cafe on Mondays. Run by graduate students and faculty of the Organismic and Evolutionary Biology program at UMass (hence the OEB title), the cafe’s topics follow along the theme of evolutionary biology and teach participants about topics ranging from the similarities between ants and humans to the way that a bird’s brain learns songs. Though the cafes are designed with adults in mind, self-directed teens and tweens with an interest in biology are welcome and can certainly learn lots by attending. Each OEB Science Cafe takes place from 6-7pm, and is free!

In Amherst, the SciTech Cafe meets at Amherst Brewing Company on the 4th Monday of each month. Covering topics within the realm of science and technology – a vast field, the cafe’s next two upcoming topics are the science of alien worlds (also known as space technology) and the science of sleep. Each event will include a talk by an expert, as well as time for questions and even a game!

A privilege generally enjoyed only by college students and scientists themselves, the opportunity to learn about a topic from an expert scientist grants learners access to a pool of knowledge that is both deep and wide. No matter the topic at hand, each science cafe is lead by an expert in the field – whether a graduate student, professor, or a researcher, the scientists who share their expertise offer science cafe participants access to the best resource of all: someone with personal experience in the field, and lots of it. For topics that don’t lend themselves nicely to experiential learning as a family (like space exploration and molecular biology, for example), the science cafes provide an opportunity to hear about an expert’s own personal experience learning about a topic – which just might be the next best thing.

Exposing older students to science is important for many reasons. Of course, it’s important to understand the world around us, but it’s also important to support older students in learning to dig deep into their own personal interests. Allowing them to participate in community events such as science cafes can help them to learn how to engage with an intergenerational community of learners, allow them to practice asking questions, and challenge them to learn more about in-depth science topics on their own – both to gain background knowledge before an event and to learn more afterward. Whether science cafes are used to expose students to new topics or are attended in order to add depth to studies already taking place in a student’s work, they present a valuable and community-based learning opportunity that budding scientists shouldn’t miss!

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