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Science Education  

A Bottleneck in the Classroom

Poor performance in science learning reduces number of researchers and makes Brazil less competitive

032-038_educacaocientifica_200-1_novoThe precariousness of science education has emerged as an inconvenient barrier in Brazil’s way, at a time when the country hopes to internationalize its scientific research and must train skilled professionals to accelerate its growth. The obstacle is tangible in the historical scores on the Pisa (the Program for International Student Assessment), an examination that tests the competence level of adolescents aged 15 in reading, math and science every three years and is taken in over 60 countries. Brazil participated in the 2009 exam with a sample of 20,127 students and achieved an average of 405 points in science. The performance surpassed the 390 points obtained on the 2006 examination, but is far from developed countries or even the emerging countries with which Brazil competes directly. China, for example, obtained 575 points with a team of students from the city of Shanghai (see graph). Countries like Colombia (402 points), Tunisia (401) and Kazakhstan (400) are at the same level as Brazil. “Brazilian students performed poorly on both the part of the test that evaluates theoretical concepts and that requiring the solution of concrete problems,” notes sociologist Maria Helena Guimarães de Castro, who from 1995 to 2002 was president of the National Institute for Educational Studies and Research (Inep) of the Ministry of Education, and coordinated Brazil’s entry into Pisa in 2000.

The Pisa divides students into six categories: from level 1, in which students are only able to provide obvious scientific explanations, through level 6, in which they are able to demonstrate the ability to reason in a scientifically advanced manner. Brazil’s position on this scale is discouraging. The majority (83%) of the Brazilian sample fell into level 2 or below. This means that they only have enough knowledge to provide explanations in familiar contexts and draw conclusions based on simple research.

The members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)—an organization of the most advanced economies on the planet and the creator of Pisa—achieved much higher scores: more than half of the students fell between levels 3 and 4, a sign that they are able to reflect on and make decisions using scientific evidence, in addition to interpreting and using scientific knowledge from various disciplines. Less than 4% of Brazilian students were above level 4 on the sciences exam (Brazil’s performance at level 6, the highest, was 0%). It is on this contingent of top students that the country must depend in order to create future generations of researchers. Other nations have a much larger contingent with which to carry out this mission. In South Korea, more than 40% of the students are at level 4 or above. “The best-performing countries manage available resources well and value teaching as a career. These are premises that Brazil must ensure to improve,” says physicist Marcelo Knobel, Dean of Undergraduate Studies at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp). In an article published with Fernando Paixão in the newspaper Folha de São Paulo, Knobel came to very similar conclusions, relating the low student performance on the Pisa math test to the shortage of engineers.


Some have been successful in improving science education in Brazil. In many cases, the techniques are based on open, experimental activities, with the teacher playing the role of facilitator in group discussions, using references from students’ everyday experiences and adopting educational material capable of stimulating knowledge construction. In 2009, sociologist Simon Schwartzman and researcher Micheline Christophe, of the Institute for Research on Work and Society (IETS), did a study commissioned by the Brazilian Academy of Sciences that analyzed various experiences, some related to training teachers, others related to classroom activities—but they have only been applied in restricted and isolated environments, without reaching the bulk of students in public schools. “We were able to observe how this methodology creates a motivating, participatory work environment, different from classes in which teachers dictate the content that students write down, with the associated problems of misunderstanding, indifference and lack of discipline,” the study says.

An example is the project ABC Hands-On Science Education, a result of a cooperation agreement between the Brazilian and French academies of science, focusing on the early years of primary school. Begun in 2001, its activities consist of training programs for teachers and teaching coordinators and the development of materials for experimental work in training courses and schools. Activities spread to more than 10 cities in several states, starting with three centers, the Science Station, an interactive science museum at the University of São Paulo (USP), the USP Center for Scientific and Cultural Dissemination in São Carlos, and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro. According to the study, most of the experiments are maintained through the presence of a specialist affiliated with a university or science center, working individually or with little help.  But the program has diverse outcomes, including the development of educational modules, as well as courses and workshops for various kinds of teachers.

The experiences of Sangari Brazil, a company, in teaching science is another example. It created science teaching modules that are used in private schools and in public school systems, such as in the Federal District, and the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Manaus. Teachers receive kits with 16 lesson modules that inspire discussions and problem solving in the classroom, and are trained by experts to handle this material. “It operates on the basis of three premises: the use of teaching materials, teacher training, and monitoring of schools through tutors. And it does not work if any of the three elements are missing, “said Maristela Sarmento, Sangari educational director. The project works as part of the curriculum, for example, in Rio de Janeiro public schools, but it is also offered as an extracurricular activity in private schools which offer full-day classes. “Students in private schools have a greater repertoire and sometimes they learn more easily. But the curiosity and enthusiasm shown by the public school students is amazing,” he says.

032-038_educacaocientifica_200-3With respect to science museums, the study highlights the Science Space (Espaço Ciência) in the state of Pernambuco, an open-air museum funded by the state government, located on ​​120,000 square meters of land between the cities of Olinda and Recife, offering more than 200 interactive displays on topics such as physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics and geography. It is equipped with facilities such as a reflecting pool, a hydroelectric power generator, a planetarium and a cave, and even has a mangrove area used for experiments and environmental education. Visitors are invited, for example, to identify the species that inhabit the swamp. The museum receives 150,000 visitors each year.

The number and quality of science museums have improved in recent years, but visiting them has not yet become a tradition. “In Europe, visiting museums is part of family and school traditions. There, museums are much appreciated by society and become important tools for disseminating scientific thinking and educating citizens,” says Ernst Hamburger, professor of physics at USP, who directed the Science Station Museum. “Here in Brazil, the museum-going public is still limited. No museum surpasses 1 million visitors per year, which is not a large number for a country with our population,” said the professor, who believes exhibitions should be taken out of the museums and brought to the people living on the outskirts of the city.

Schwartzman’s study warns that there are a number of challenges to be overcome in order to take full advantage of the good experiences of the past. One is to ensure that the projects are constantly monitored and supported. Another, more complex challenge is to standardize and systematize the material to be taught by teachers which, in some respects, contradicts the open, interactive nature of the experiments. “The problem is that these open processes only work well when the teacher is very well trained, and students have adequate initial training, which includes mastering the ability to read, write and use basic mathematical concepts,” the study contends.

According to Maria José Pereira Monteiro de Almeida, professor at the Unicamp School of Education, standardization, as it is done today, produces harmful results. “Many schools have adopted teaching systems that conspire against creative, participatory teaching. The perspective that the teacher’s work is intellectual is also lost. In these systems, the teacher need only follow what is written in textbooks to feel as if he did his job,” she says. Prof. Almeida leads the Research Group on Science and Teaching at Unicamp, which has contributed in various ways to furthering science education. It showed, for example, the importance of teaching contemporary, modern physics in secondary school, whereas most schools teach only classical physics.

Currently, Prof. Almeida’s group, under the FAPESP Program for Improving Public Education, is investigating strategies to overcome the gap between research addressing problems in basic scientific education, and the reality in schools. “We have numerous graduate programs in science education in Brazil, but the researchers they produce are generally employed at universities, while teachers and students who deal with the issue on a daily basis have little access to that knowledge,” he says.

032-038_educacaocientifica_200-4Brazil has 649 researchers per million inhabitants. This is a low rate compared to countries like Japan (5,543 researchers per million inhabitants), the United States (4,726), South Korea (4,725) or China (1,082). In the state of São Paulo, the situation is slightly better, with 1,147 researchers per million inhabitants. The need to train future scientists is a crucial reason to improve science education, but there are other fundamental justifications. “One of them is to ensure that all citizens of a modern society understand the wider implications, both positive and problematic, of what is now known as a ‘knowledge society,’ and which impacts the lives of all people and countries,” says Sociologist Simon Schwartzman. Another reason, the professor notes, is “to get people to acquire the methods and attitudes typical of modern sciences, characterized by intellectual curiosity, methodical questioning, observation of the facts and the search for causal relationships, recognized as part of an individual’s development of critical thinking and intellectual autonomy.”

Brazilian research on science teaching is prolific, but has little effect on public policy and is only occasionally applied in schools. “At least every two years there are several national meetings on science education at which much good research is presented,” says Professor Almeida. “But when experiences are transposed into the reality of the schools, they end up being hindered by structural problems, such as lack of teachers, and do not move forward,” she explains. The knowledge produced also has trouble getting into the schools. “There is a lot of research on schools, but little research with and in the schools, involving teachers,” says Maurício Compiani, professor at the Unicamp Geosciences Institute and a specialist in science education. He notes that there is little coordination among researchers. “In this state, despite the large number of research groups studying science education, there is no FAPESP thematic project that addresses the broader issues of the area,” he says.

Training a teacher to provide quality science instruction is no simple task. “To teach science well, the teacher needs to do classroom work based on research. But she is not trained for that. How can she teach research if she has never performed research?” asks the physicist Ernst Hamburger. He notes that it takes years for a good teacher to become competent. “We expect as much of science teachers as of physicians and engineers, but the wage gap between these professions is huge,” he says. Hamburger recalls that the quantitative progress of Brazilian education over the past 50 years, with the inclusion of a large percentage of Brazilians in the educational system, has been impressive. “I’m optimistic, but respecting the teaching profession and promoting teacher training are prerequisites for further progress.”

032-038_educacaocientifica_200-5The experience of the USP-School Meetings (Encontros USP-Escola) project shows that there are teachers who are eager to improve their training. During January and July school vacations, primary and secondary school teachers are invited to attend a series of activities, including courses, lectures and workshops devoted to the teaching of physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, astronomy and English, as well as to learn classroom methodologies in which students participates actively. “We started in 2007 with 50 teachers and today we have over 250 attending 10 courses,” says Vera Henriques, project coordinator and professor at the USP Physics Institute. She claims that promotion of the courses by boards of education is often weak and that word of mouth must be used. “Some teachers are very interested. A few of them formed the USP-School Working Group, together with some teachers and students at USP. The group meets monthly to develop experimental teaching materials and participatory teaching strategies. It is currently preparing an electronic journal that will be based at the Physics Institute, in order to disseminate materials and ideas for quality instruction,” she says.

The trend in Brazilian universities is to better prepare teachers to deal with the complex reality of its students, especially those in public school. Maurício Compiani, of Unicamp, says that since 2006, the university has required future teachers to participate in a 400-hour internship in schools before they graduate. “Now, the first group of teachers that is graduating since this rule was established are beginning to join the labor market and we hope that they will know how to see the student as a real subject, rather than as an ideal. Today the cognitive, hypothetical, logical and deductive aspects of scientific knowledge are prized. But there is other—cultural, emotional, and artistic—knowledge in this child. The teacher needs to demonstrate the connections between scientific knowledge and the child’s everyday knowledge,” he said. In a project linked to the FAPESP Program for Improving Public Education, conducted between 2006 and 2010, the group led by Compiani liaised with another project on environmental recovery in Campinas to present socioeconomic and geoscientific knowledge in a way pertinent to the reality of teachers and students in city schools. The professor warns, however, that there are sometimes insurmountable obstacles to improvement. “In some public schools in poor neighborhoods on the outskirts, teacher turnover is 40% per year. It is impossible to put together teams if the group is not stable,” he says. Another vulnerable area is the aversion of schools to encouraging cooperation among students. “It’s rare to see a student who is good in every subject,” says Prof. Almeida, from Unicamp. “Some students have trouble with certain subjects, but are able to learn together with classmates. Schools, however, normally stimulate competition between students,” she says.

032-038_educacaocientifica_200-6It may seem paradoxical, but Brazilian students claim to be very interested in science. Pisa data show that students strongly support science, at a level higher than that seen even in the developed countries, but report little use of scientific knowledge for their own benefit. “What is missing is a way to allow them to take ownership of the sciences, and Brazilian schools have not done this,” says Simon Schwartzman.

Renato Pedrosa, from the Unicamp Center for Advanced Studies and former coordinator of the university entrance exam, notes that the country has been making slow progress in the quality of instruction—historical Pisa scores show that Brazil’s science score rose from 365 points in 2000 to 405 points in 2009. “The results from Pisa and other assessments show that Brazil’s performance is disastrous when compared with other countries. While there has been an improvement in performance at the primary school level, this did not translate into improvement at the secondary school level, where dropping out is still very common,” said Pedrosa.

He feels that part of the drop may be explained by the increase in employment levels, and the Ministry of Education and Culture’s ​​strategy of considering every student who has passed the ENEM (a national exam taken at the end of secondary school studies) as having graduated from secondary school. “In the case of employment, this is easy to understand. More worrisome is that the Ministry of Education and Culture is granting secondary school diplomas to any student who has obtained 400 points on the ENEM, when we know that this score can almost be achieved by answering the questions randomly, just by guessing,” he says. “Now the minimum has been increased to 450 points, but it is still low.” Science education assessment results reveal a dramatic reality, says Pedrosa. “In some Brazilian states, like Maranhão and Alagoas, student performance is very low and does not respond to attempts to improve it. The highest performance always comes from the same regions, such as Rio Grande do Sul, the Federal District, São Paulo and Minas Gerais,” he says. Without a strong strategy, says Pedrosa, it will take Brazil more than 50 years to achieve the educational outcomes of the countries it competes with. “We must ensure better conditions in the schools attended by the poorest students, whose families have a harder time supporting them. One of the most important changes that must be made is for students to attend school full-day, rather than half-day, as is the current practice. This may not be as important for students in the upper middle class, but for others it makes a huge difference,” he says.