Cafe Sci in Schools (UK)

Cafe Sci in Schools (UK)


From 2006-09, the Wellcome Trust funded a project to extend the cafe scientifique project into UK schools. The project was led by Duncan Dallas and Tom Shakespeare and eventually employed a lead co-ordinator, two part-time co-ordinators and an administrator. The project focussed on schools in the north and north-east of England, with some activity in the English Midlands and Scotland. Unfortunately, at the end of the funding, the project was unable to find further funding to continue independently. A few schools around the UK still run cafes, both within the school and for their community and we are happy for teachers to experiment with starting a cafe in their schools. We hope the notes below will be helpful.


Starting a cafe

Cafe sci in schools offers a unique opportunity for school students to meet working scientists in an informal, relaxed, ‘café’ atmosphere and to explore together contemporary issues in science and technology. Cafés can be open to all students and teachers, regardless of their age and interests - there's science in any subject!


Cafés are held outside lesson time, usually during lunch or directly after school. Although they are held in school, the last place we want them to be is in a classroom. Speakers aren't encumbered with technology (no microphones or slide-shows allowed), so cafés can be held anywhere: the common room, the library, the cafeteria, maybe even outside - anywhere that feels relaxed and informal.


The format is simple. The scientist speaks for about 10-15 minutes -- plenty of time to introduce the topic. Speakers are volunteers from local universities and industry, and range from professors to young PhD students, depending on the topic and their expertise. The one thing that they have in common is that they are passionate about their subject and excited about sharing it with students.


Cafés need a member of staff ready to take responsibility for the café in their school. It doesn't have to be a science teacher - cafés cover a wide range of issues and would be of interest to teachers involved in citizenship, media studies, environmental science and other subjects; librarians; staff responsible for specialist school activities, and so on. Ideally, the staff coordinator will gather a group of students who will form an organising team or, at a minimum, will help with selecting topics for the café programme.


The format is very simple - the speaker (a working scientist or researcher) will introduce the topic and their interest in it. This introduction will last about 10 - 15 minutes. After that the floor is opened up for discussion - students questioning the speaker, the speaker questioning students and students questioning each other!


Cafés are informal, and for that reason we prefer them not to take place in a classroom. Speakers are unencumbered by technology (no microphones or slideshows allowed) so you can be ingenious about the venue. Cafés have been held in cafeterias, common rooms, libraries and even outside - anywhere that students can relax, eat and join in.


Lunchtime or after school, whichever suits your school best. Some schools provide simple drinks and food to help generate a good atmosphere and encourage students to come along. Student organising teams have in the past been very inventive in getting sponsorship for this bit! How often cafés happen depends on the level of enthusiasm but most schools aim for 4-6 in the school year.


Suggestions for topics to talk about will come from the students themselves. It could be something particularly relevant or topical, or it could be an ongoing debate such as the relationship between science and religion - anything that gets young people asking questions, communicating their opinions and drawing their own informed conclusions.

How to get started

Any school can run a café. Ideally you will work with a group of students to help organise it and choose topics, but every coordinator can run the café in the way that suits their school best - you may choose to organise the café programme yourself or ask the students to nominate topics whilst you source the speaker.

Who’s involved

We recommend that the café is open to students of different ages to keep continuity – when the older ones leave the younger ones can take over - but you can decide on who to promote the event to.

You may want to work with your STEM Club within the school to help organise the café, or you may want to work with one of your science classes. Remember, Café Sci isn’t necessarily restricted to science, so think about getting teachers of religious education, democracy studies, politics, citizenship courses or media studies, or librarians and other specialist staff involved. The key is to get the students questioning things and drawing their own informed conclusions.

Identify a topic and title

It's a good idea to choose a topic of general interest, to attract a large and wide-ranging audience - something really current or controversial usually does the trick. You or a colleague can be the speaker at the first café, or you may want to invite a speaker, especially if you know of someone who you think would give a good presentation.

For later cafés, at a minimum we recommend working with students to develop a programme, and they'll need your support to come up with ideas for interesting and topical discussions, with catchy, quirky titles.

Identify a location

Exactly where you hold your café depends on the circumstances of your school, but we'd encourage you, if at all possible, not to hold the café in a classroom. The location should be somewhere informal, where students can relax, eat and join in the discussions. Potential locations could be a library or common room, but you may have to devise your own informality by moving the tables and providing refreshments (which is always a great draw). There's no need for any technical equipment - with only ten minutes or so to introduce the topic, speakers won't need projectors or microphones.

Finding a speaker

This can be the trickiest part of organising a café, but there are places you can try and organisations that can help.

Once you’ve found your speaker you must brief them in advance of the event. This will include details of where the event is, the age of students involved, and the format of the event.

Advertising the café

Exactly what format the advertising takes - assemblies, newsletters, notice boards - will depend on your school.

Issuing free tickets works well and gives the event added ‘value’. If students decide in advance not to attend then they have to give their ticket to someone else, or back to the organiser. You can be as strict as you like on this – whatever is going to work best for your school!

Getting the discussion going

Café Sci is all about giving students the opportunity to ask questions and helping them to make up their own minds about the issues that they may come across in their lives, so getting the discussion going at a café is really important.

This can be daunting, and sometimes it feels easier to switch to a standard lecture followed by Q&A format, but do try and get a wider discussion going if you can – you’ll find that you will also benefit from working to this format.

There are a few ways that you can manage discussion. The staff coordinator may want to field the questions, or the speaker may want to manage this themselves, or you may want to make one of the students a Chairperson and give them the responsibility of chairing the discussion. Whoever takes the lead in chairing discussion, they will need to make sure they do their best to include everyone’s point of view and give them the opportunity to speak.

After the café

Keep your relationship with the speaker and their organisation alive if you can. They may be interested in getting involved in other activities taking place in the school, or they may be interested in doing another café, or they may know a colleague who is also interested!

You or the students can evaluate their café experience, feeding any learning into the next event. Remember to keep a log, and tell us about the events you are running.

Choosing a topic

There are many places where you can find inspiration for a topic for your café. We’ve listed a few here, but you’ll find that ideas occur to you from things that you encounter every day – after all Café Sci is about the science that is relevant to your life.

Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition

Every year the Royal Society, the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence, holds a Summer Science Exhibition. This Exhibition invites researchers from across the UK to present their work in cutting edge science and technology. The Exhibition is held every July in London and is a fantastic place to come and talk to some leading researchers, but even if you can’t visit the Exhibition you can learn about the science behind the exhibits online.

You can browse through the exhibits, or search within a subject that interests you. You can also find links to video, and the Journal papers upon which the exhibit is based.

BBC News

See the BBC’s Sci/ Environment pages for up to date science related news stories. Look out for their ‘Related Stories’ links that sometimes accompany the news articles.


We recommend that your first port of call should be the STEM Ambassadors scheme ( Ambassadors are professionals with an interest, either personal or professional, in Science, Technology, Engineering or Maths (STEM) related topics. Following training, Ambassadors agree to participate in activities with school and college students on a voluntary basis.

Ambassadors are Criminal Records Bureau checked and covered by the programme’s insurance whenever they participate in an activity (another important issue when considering student safety). The Ambassador programme operates across the UK through local contract holders. You can contact your local contract holder via the STEMNET website (


You can Google the topic and see if the search throws up any names in your area. Or use the university’s own search system for possibilities. Most universities have a department responsible for outreach work but these often go by different names – they might be the Public Engagement / Schools Liaison / Widening Participation department. Whatever their name, they should be able to refer you to someone who can help.

Science and technology businesses

Many science and technology based businesses support their employees in working with the local community, but getting to speak to the right person can be a bit trickier than Universities. However, a good way in is through the Public Relations team - you will always be able to find their contact details, and they are used to picking up the phone and answering enquiries.

Local evening Café Scientifique

If there is an evening café nearby the organiser may be able to suggest local speakers who can help. These speakers will have the advantage of knowing something about how cafés work. They’re often scientists from nearby universities. If you can’t locate a nearby café, use the contact address on the Café Scientifique website to enquire further.

Scientific membership organisations

There are many more organisations that may be able to put you in touch with scientists and engineers in your region. Some organisations, such as the Institute of Physics, or the Royal Society of Chemistry, have members who may be able to request a speaker on your behalf. You can also try your local Astronomy Group, or ask your Governors and parents for ideas.

Giving students the lead

Café Sci offers your students the opportunity to organise their own discussion event, giving them the chance to discuss the topics that they find interesting and relevant.

You can involve your students in each stage of the process behind organising a café, from choosing the topics and finding the speakers, to organising the catering and leading the discussion. Even if you haven’t the opportunity to get your students involved in this way, we do recommend that you at least involve them in selecting the topics. Whichever way you choose to organise your students, your continuing role will be to support, encourage and sustain them, help them develop a balanced and interesting programme and maintain continuity as older students leave.

The incentives for students include opportunities for personal development and CV enhancement, the chance to gain an insight into current research and live science issues and the opportunity to take part in debate and voice their opinions with working scientists.


Taking part in Cafe Sci also counts towards various awards, giving students a tangible reward for their efforts. There are many different schemes available -we've listed just a few that have specifically agreed to work with us.

CREST Awards

CREST (Creativity in Science and Technology) is a project-based awards scheme for STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). Run by the British Science Association, CREST enables young people aged 11-19 to explore the real nature of STEM by doing their own creative project work, linking their personal interests to curriculum-based learning.

CREST Awards are available at Bronze, Silver and Gold levels, depending on the amount and depth of work carried out.

The scheme accredits different types of project work in STEM including science communication projects, practical investigation/design work and research projects. Using one Café Sci experience as a starting point, students can go on to explore a topic in detail and achieve a CREST award in the process.

The award is a tangible recognition of success, which can be included in the student’s personal record of achievement and used to enhance applications to universities, colleges and potential employers. Students who complete a CREST award also have the opportunity to have their work celebrated at regional and national fairs. For more information about CREST including how to get started, visit the website

The Primary, Secondary and Advanced Leaders Award for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics)

The Leaders Award for STEM is a free activity and open to all between the ages of 5 and 19 years, enabling them to develop awareness of the breadth of opportunities open to them within the STEM subjects. The awards help to develop vital literacy and communication skills and give the students a chance to open their aspirations by speaking directly with professionals from different fields in STEM.

Students can become Leaders for STEM or STEM Reporters, both complete the award in the same basic way - by writing a letter of application followed by meeting and interviewing professionals in STEM backgrounds.

For more information on how to get involved visit the website

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