By Paul Fattig
Chances are a few students will toast scientist Darren Johnson with a brewski when he lectures in Ashland and Medford this coming week.
But that won’t faze the University of Oregon associate professor of chemistry.
After all, he is a veteran of the innovative Science Pubs program, during which participants can quaff a beer while also quenching their thirst for knowledge.
His informal lecture Tuesday evening in Ashland and Wednesday evening in Medford is part of a program UO and Oregon State University have scheduled around the state to bring university-level science to the masses.
“It’s the only time I can talk about science with a beer in my hand,” Johnson says. “It’s a whole lot of fun.”
Johnson, 39, who has been teaching at the university for a decade, will be giving a talk titled, “Not a Drop to Drink: Water Filtration Issues in the 21st Century.”
But he promises his presentation will not be too dry. It will be watered down, so to speak. “I try to not be too technical,” he says. “I avoid jargon and just give the facts.”
There will be no stuffy academic lecture, no tough tests, no lit Bunsen burners. The casual events, which run about 90 minutes, are open to the public. In addition to the main presentation, there will be time for a trivia contest and questions from the audience.
The Science Pubs are part of a popular movement spreading across the nation. It was in England that students in the early 1990s first began drinking ales during science lectures at pubs, according to Cafe Scientifique, a British group promoting and tracking such events around the globe. More than 150 U.S. cities now host science pubs.
The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry began offering them in Portland in summer 2006. Their popularity has prompted OMSI to offer two a month in Portland and add four other cities statewide.
Thanks to support from the National Science Foundation and the Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry, the Science Pubs project began early last year, says Andy Bedingfield, the center’s director of outreach and education. The pubs have been held in Albany, Hood River, The Dalles, Pendleton and La Grande, he says.
In addition to spreading science education farther afield from the campuses, the Science Pubs encourage participants to discover the mysteries of science, he says.
“The average attendee is someone in education, maybe a science teacher, or someone who works in the science industry,” Bedingfield says. “We also get a lot of people who are just interested in science. We also get high school students who want to learn more about science.”
The younger attendees, of course, would not be allowed to have a beer, but food is also served at the events, organizers say. During the day, the presenters and center staff meet with local educational leaders.
“We want to bring these presentations out to the rest of Oregon,” Bedingfield says. “We want to bring a Science Pub to all the counties in Oregon.”
Back in his lab, Johnson, who has a doctorate in chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley, can often be found pondering organic synthesis using supramolecular chemistry.
But you won’t hear a peep out of him about those weighty topics during the pubs.
Instead, he will talk about water purification, from the vital importance of clean water to emerging approaches to water treatment worldwide.
Johnson, who allows he has done some home brewing in his day, says he takes a much more casual approach in a pub than in a university lecture hall.
“When I am teaching senior level students in organic chemistry, I talk to them like colleagues,” he says. “But Science Pubs have all kinds of people. Sometimes there are those who come in who don’t know what is going on.
“So I keep it pretty informal and encourage people to ask questions,” he adds. “We always get some great questions. It is totally fun. There is a real appetite for this.”
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.