The Interdisciplinary Higher Education Program at the University of Campinas (ProFIS-UNICAMP), a project similar to many provided by higher education institutions in the USA, such as the University of California, Berkeley, is giving the best public school students in Campinas an opportunity to experiment and learn about scientific methods before enrolling on a conventional undergraduate course. “Through the ProFIS program, students can take courses at any UNICAMP institute and learn the basics of the natural, social, and artistic world with a focus on the development of oral and written communication, logical reasoning, and ethical, social, and environmental responsibility, as well as how these aspects relate to the labor market,” says physicist Marcelo Knobel, dean of UNICAMP and one of the founders of the program.
ProFIS lasts two years, during which time students are encouraged to consider their potential career options. One of the disciplines, run by the university’s Student Support Service (SAE), aims to develop self-knowledge in relation to values, interests, and skills, as well as offering information about different industries and careers. Students are also introduced to the curriculums of the courses offered at UNICAMP and the types of activities involved in various professions. They then discuss the options best suited to their abilities and interests.
“The chance to spend time at numerous UNICAMP schools and institutes gives you a proper feel for the courses, allows you to meet the students and teachers, and helps you reflect on your options,” says Marcos Vaz, a former ProFIS student. “This helps you make a more conscious choice of what to study at undergraduate level,” explains the student, who is currently a first-year medical student at the UNICAMP School of Medical Sciences.
Vaz says that while he was always interested in medicine, ProFIS made him more confident in his decision by giving him the chance to attend certain lectures and talk to teachers and students at different stages of the course. “When I enrolled as an undergraduate, I was already a UNICAMP veteran,” he says. Biologist Mariana Freitas Nery, a coordinator of the program, believes that students who have taken the ProFIS course begin their undergraduate studies more mature than their peers that enroll via university entrance exam, and have a notably more critical and socially engaged attitude. “Many are keen to participate in discussions involving the university council and academic bodies, as well as working on social projects,” says the researcher.
One such example is Bárbara Cardoso Miranda, who graduated in phonoaudiology this year and was one of the first students of the ProFIS program. After graduating, she took it upon herself to encourage a number of professors and colleagues from various courses to participate in the Rondon Project, a federal program through which university students volunteer to work on local development projects in small rural towns around Brazil. “Because the scope of the course is so broad, ProFIS allows young people to expand their world view based on discussions about social institutions and environmental, historical, and ethical issues, among other topics, making them more conscious citizens,” says Mariana Nery.
77% of those enrolled on the program were the first generation to attend higher education in their families
Another innovative aspect is that students have the opportunity to work on a scientific research project in the second year of the course. The idea is that under the guidance of a UNICAMP professor or researcher—from any field of knowledge—students are introduced to creative and scientific research processes and develop their own project. “This is the only UNICAMP course with a compulsory research project”, emphasizes Knobel. “The objective is to help students develop research skills and learn how to approach real-world problems using scientific concepts, techniques, and methods.” The students share their results at the ProFIS Science Show and at the UNICAMP Internal Student Research Conference, which is held once a year. The aim is that this will make students more familiar with the dynamics of presenting papers at academic events, producing posters, and defending ideas and concepts based on scientific procedures and arguments.
The impact of this preliminary education on students who have completed the ProFIS program is clear, as shown by Felipe Roberto Francisco, who graduated from the UNICAMP Institute of Biology at age 25 and started his PhD via direct entry (see profile). “The ProFIS program helped me understand the dynamics of how scientific research is developed and papers are produced, from conception of the objectives and methods to the writing of the article. This knowledge enabled me skip a step in my academic career, starting my PhD immediately after completing my undergraduate studies,” says Francisco, one of the 16 students from the first ProFIS class who graduated in biology at UNICAMP this year.
The first semesters of the program are often the most difficult for former public-school students, who have to quickly adapt to a new academic environment and full-time education. “They need to work hard to be able to keep up with the lessons and to address their lack of certain skills, especially in disciplines such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, and writing,” explains Mariana. In total, ProFIS students must complete 28 compulsory modules and two electives, chosen from any undergraduate program at the institution. Another obstacle to overcome is the distance to the university. Most of the students live in remote neighborhoods and have to travel a long way to get there. “Simply offering admission to the course is not enough in these cases. We need strategies that encourage them to actually come, and then to remain on the program,” clarifies the biologist. The measures adopted by the institution include a R$400 scholarship and free food at the university restaurant, which have both proven successful.
One of the indirect consequences of the ProFIS initiative is that the students themselves become advocates, promoting the program in the neighborhoods where they live and the schools they attended. “Many public-school students are not even aware that they can apply for a free university course,” says Mariana, but thanks to the increased publicity, things are changing. “Most schools already prepare their students for the National High School Finishing Exam (which functions as an entrance exam for most universities) with a possible place on the ProFIS program in mind,” she adds.
ProFIS boosts number of public high school graduates attending university
ProFIS, launched in 2011, selects up to two of the best students from each of the 95 public high schools in Campinas based on the results of the National High School Finishing Exam. All students can apply by simply registering for the program, which guarantees at least one space for each school. The initiative complements the efforts of Brazil’s Affirmative Action and Social Inclusion Program (PAAIS), which started in 2004 and gives greater weight to university entrance exam results for students from public schools.
After successfully completing the two-year course, students receive an associate degree certificate and may choose to continue their studies on any one of the 61 undergraduate courses offered by the institution without taking the entrance examination, subject to their performance and available spaces.
Since it started, the program has increased the number of students from public schools at the university by 3%. In its first semester, 731 students were enrolled from 88 public schools. All 120 available spaces were filled. In addition to having graduated from a public high school, which is a prerequisite of the program, 92.5% of participants also attended public elementary schools.
According to the report Continued assessment of UNICAMP’s Interdisciplinary Higher Education Program (ProFIS): Contributions of the longitudinal study, released in December by UNICAMP’s Center for Public Policy Studies (NEPP), about 40% of students in the first ProFIS semester were black or mixed race, which is 2.7 times higher than among students enrolled via entrance exam. Regarding the educational level of their parents, 77% of ProFIS students are the first generation of their families to enroll in higher education, compared to about 46% of those entering via entrance exam; 33% of their parents attended elementary school and 44% attended high school.