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Science Cafe

Contra Costa County Library, CA
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Innovation Summary

The Lafayette Library and Learning Center annually sponsors 400 programs. One of the most successful series’ is our “Science Café” bringing subject experts from the San Francisco Bay Area to a casual setting with 150 guests over box dinners and wine, to discuss topics from Origami to Stem Cell Research.

Problem Statement

The Lafayette Library and Learning Center is home to the Glenn T. Seaborg Learning Consortium a unique collaboration among 12 well-regarded organizations from the San Francisco Bay Area including the Commonwealth Club, Lawrence Hall of Science and the Oakland Museum. Each of the Consortium members sponsor a number of programs per year that focus on a diverse range of topics in public affairs, health and well being, and art and literature to name just a few. The challenge and opportunity that we wanted to address was how to engage a high school and adult age population in topics that focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). We wanted the topics to be of current interest, with presenters who are subject experts but who could discuss the topic in a lively and interesting manner. Beyond the challenge of identifying interesting topics and good presenters was the challenge of attracting a large audience on a weeknight when many students and adults will have already finished a busy day. From its launch, the objective of the Science Café has been to make the programs both fun and interesting.


The key elements of innovation are: identifying interesting topics, locating presenters who can engage their audience in a lively discussion, partnering with an organization that has outreach as a part of its mission – which in our case is the Northern California Chapter of the American Chemical Society, arranging the room in a configuration that emphasizes a casual environment, and offering box dinners, beer, wine and other beverages for people who may have skipped an evening meal at home to attend the program. We believe that the key elements of our program can be easily replicated by many libraries who can identify STEM topics of interest to their community, locate someone from the community who is a subject expert – perhaps when they read an article in the local or regional media about someone who is engaged in an interesting topic, and determining how to make the program “fun.” Just two examples may serve to illustrate how to identify a topic and a presenter: last spring the Transit of Venus was the subject of much discussion in the press as it happens rarely, so we engaged a professor of astronomy from St. Mary’s College and we had nearly 500 participants. Another subject that came to us via an article in the press was about a man who is an expert in Origami who happened to live less than 10 miles from our library and who was amazing and drew 150 guests.


When we launched the Science Café two years ago we were unsure of how successful the program would be: would we attract 25 participants, could we identify enough topics to make it a monthly program such that guests would get in the habit of attending, would we be able to find presenters who are both subject experts but also lively and engaging of an audience who might have limited familiarity with the topic? We believe that because the first few Cafes were successful we established a good news/bad news situation. The good news was that we were attracting an audience of more than 125 people (versus our original expectation of 25), but the bad news was that because the first programs were of real interest, we established an expectation level for interesting topics and great presenters. By far though, the best outcome is that we are drawing an audience of adults and high school students to our library in the evening on a weeknight that have all become active members of our Library and Learning Center community.