Community, suds and science

Botanist Karen Snetselaar shows how vacant city lots can become biodiverse landscapes. PHOTO COURTESY OF CAITLIN FRITZ Posters designed by the author for Science on the Hill events.

It is another late night at Landmark Americana Tap and Grill, a popular sports bar in the Wynnefield neighborhood of Philadelphia. Gathered among the bartenders and patrons are teachers and students, parents and teenagers, a librarian, a motorcycle enthusiast, a postal worker and a microbiologist. Amid talk of who is ordering the next round of beer and cheese fries is a lively discussion about the differences between a bacterium and a virus. This is Science on the Hill, and the bar is abuzz with chatter about the science of everyday phenomena.

A bimonthly public science education program funded by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Outreach Seed Grant Program, Science on the Hill is the brainchild of co-organizers Edwin Li, an assistant professor of biology at Saint Joseph’s University, and Caitlin Fritz, who directs GeoKids LINKS, a program that places SJU fellows in local elementary school classrooms. Modeled after science cafés, which bring scientists out of the lab to engage community audiences in informal discussions, Science on the Hill cuts through the pressures of a formal classroom or lecture hall, replacing quizzes with quesadillas, study notes with nachos and lab reports with lagers.

Now in its second year, Science on the Hill has featured experts covering a variety of topics, including climate change, epigenetics, urban landscapes and a scandalous version of Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle. Many of the events get attendees off of their bar stools and out of their seats. Participants have swabbed for bacteria, popped water balloons to demonstrate Neosporin’s effect on a bacterial cell and caught Wiffle® balls as they acted out the role of cell receptors. No one has spilled a glass or knocked over a table … yet.

Discussions are open and casual, and participants are empowered to contribute their own insights. One avid soccer fan found a discussion so engaging he missed watching the World Cup to stay late and challenge the Darwin speaker on the basis of evolution.

Audience members tell the organizers they come back to Science on the Hill events because the topics are interesting, current and provide opportunities to learn. After the recent measles outbreak in the U.S., Paul Offit of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia shared firsthand insights from a similar outbreak in 1991. Cynell Scott, who regularly attends Science on the Hill, said talks like Offit’s put “a microscope on it and make you look at everyday things with a different view.”

Li, the co-organizer, said, “Science cafés welcome everyone, especially those who are interested in the topic but who may not typically have the chance to get involved.” For instance, many families attend Science on the Hill. Scott, who regularly brings her two teenage children to Science on the Hill, enjoys “the interactive, fun and informative atmosphere” and the opportunity to “engage her children outside of a school setting with people of all different ages. Science is part of everyone, and Science on the Hill allows us to find common ground regardless of other barriers.”  

Scott’s children say the events have deepened their interest in science by helping them look at it in a different way and gain a better understanding of what scientists do.

While the idea of mixing science with drinks is not novel, the events have been transformative for this local neighborhood. Neighbors share ideas for new gardening techniques, librarians exchange contact information with new patrons, and teachers interact with students and parents outside of school walls.

The events frequently go well past their scheduled times, with the waitstaff chiming in on the lingering conversations as they clean tables. Some bartenders request to be scheduled for science nights so they too can participate.

Regular attendees bring so many friends and family that the talks have had to move to a larger room. As the program grows, the goal is to hold a science night in the community once a month and expand to include scientists from a wider range of disciplines.

More information on Science on the Hill can be found by clicking here.

Caitlin Fritz Caitlin Fritz is the GeoKids LINKS Program Manager at Saint Joseph’s University. She holds degrees in environmental science and community development and planning.