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A storehouse of talents

How the Brazilian Science and Engineering Fair has encouraged students to pursue a career in research

Thanks to Febrace, Pedro Ismael da Silva Junior now accepts high school students as interns at the Butantan Institute

Leo RamosThanks to Febrace, Pedro Ismael da Silva Junior now accepts high school students as interns at the Butantan InstituteLeo Ramos

One year short of graduating from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where he was majoring in political science, Heitor Geraldo da Cruz Santos, 21, was absolutely certain that he would embark on an academic career.  “I have a passion for research.  I plan to earn my PhD and, at the same time, work in educational policy for an international organization like the World Bank,” said the student, who is from Recife (Pernambuco).  His conviction had become stronger while he was in high school, when he attended two editions of the Brazilian Science and Engineering Science Fair (Febrace).  Inaugurated in 2003, the annual event brings together at the University of São Paulo (USP) hundreds of students from Brazil’s public and private elementary, middle, high school, and technical schools who submit projects from different fields of science and engineering science.

“I probably would have gone in some other direction if I had not been to Febrace,” Santos says.  “The fair helps develop critical thinking and makes young people protagonists in the learning process.”  In 2010 when he attended his first Febrace, Santos, then a student in a private high school, presented a new methodology for teaching nutrition.  “I created a method that allows teachers to influence student eating habits in a way that is integrated into the regular curriculum.”  The project won an award and entitled the student to go to the United States to take part in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), since 1950 one of the leading events of its kind in the world and attended by more than 1,700 students from 77 countries.

In the past 14 years, Febrace has recorded many cases like the above.  Some of those stories have been compiled in a document entitled Febrace – Inspiring and awakening future leaders, available on the event’s website.  In addition to reports from students and teachers who participated in the fair as advisors, the publication presents data that help evaluate the scope and impact of Febrace in Brazil.  “For example, in recent years we have identified significant growth in participation by public schools,” says Roseli de Deus Lopes, a professor in the Department of Electronic Systems Engineering at USP’s Polytechnic School (Poli) and coordinator of the event since its founding.

In 2006, 41% of the 171 schools that submitted student projects to Febrace were public schools.  Now, in 2016, the percentage has risen to 73%, out of a total of 532 schools—the result of incentives offered over the years by Febrace to encourage schools to stage science fairs.  At the same time, there has been a surge in the number of projects submitted: in 2003, there were 300; in 2016, there were more than 2,200.  The report also reveals an increase in female presence.  In 2003, girls represented 28% of the finalist students.  In 2016, they were 49%.

Some participants from the early editions of the fair are now working as researchers.  They recognize the importance of the science exposition in their career choices.  “Before Febrace, I wasn’t sure what I courses I would take in college,” recalls Ana Débora Nunes Pinheiro, who attended Febrace in 2005 when still a junior in high school in Fortaleza (Ceará).  The paper she presented, about the use of melão-de-são caetano, or bitter melon (Momordica charantia) in the treatment of gastric ulcers, contributed to her decision to pursue undergraduate studies in pharmacy.  “During the project, conducted in partnership with the State University of Ceará, I became acquainted with the scientific method.  At age 16, I realized that I would like to work with that.”

Febrace_245Pinheiro’s project received an award and she was invited to attend Intel ISEF.  In 2015, with support from FAPESP, she received her master’s degree from the School of Pharmaceutical Sciences of Ribeirão Preto—USP and, in that same year, began doctoral studies at the Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF).  “In my current research work I’m trying to develop ways to describe molecules of marine macroalgae,” Pinheiro explains.

Nutritionist Claudia Titze Hessel, from São Leopoldo (Rio Grande do Sul), also says that Febrace influenced her decision to become a researcher.  In 2005, she carried out an undergraduate research project on the effect of teas on high cholesterol levels.  She did tests on laboratory mice at the Laboratory of Cellular Physiology at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), which maintained a partnership with Colégio Sinodal, where she attended high school.  “I found that green tea was better for controlling cholesterol.”  The results of that project were submitted at both Febrace and Intel ISEF.  “My undergraduate research helped me become familiar with the vocabulary used in research, but it was at the fair that I developed my communication skills,” says Hessel, now working on her PhD in food microbiology at UFRGS.

One of the unique aspects of the science fair model is that it encourages the development of scientific competencies that can be put to work immediately in elementary, middle, and high school, says Adriana Anunciatto Depieri, an analyst at the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation, and Communication (MCTIC).  “Before presenting a project, the student conducts a research project that usually takes a year.  During that time the student learns how to collect and interpret data, test hypotheses, and announce the results.  This means getting involved with all phases of research,” says Depieri, who in 2014 defended her doctoral dissertation at USP on the subject of participation by high school juniors and seniors in science fairs in Brazil.

Depieri sent a questionnaire to the 1,053 public and private school students who had attended Febrace, the USP Professions Fair, and the São Paulo Science and Engineering Show (MOP).  One of her objectives was to gauge the impact of participation in those events and find out whether they had influenced students in their career choices.  “The responses indicate that the project development process reinforces student self-esteem and self-confidence, besides helping them perfect the skills needed for professional success,” the MCTIC analyst finds.

The research study shows that 87% of the students who were consulted recognize that participation in science fairs exposed them to new knowledge that probably would not have been acquired during day-to-day school activities.  Another 58% said that having submitted papers at the expositions influenced their college course decisions.  “Obviously, not all students who attend Febrace become researchers, and that is not really the purpose,” Lopes, coordinator of the fair, emphasizes.  “The goal is to awaken and develop creativity and critical thought and give the students tools for using the methods employed in scientific and technology research, skills that are useful in any field.”

Another finding that Depieri presented in her doctoral research is that an intention to study engineering science was shown to be high among students who had taken part in the fairs by submitting projects in that field.  Nearly 90% of them agreed that attendance at the events attracted them to that field.  “Febrace helped confirm my option for engineering,” says Conrado Leite de Vitor, who attended the 2004, 2005, and 2006 editions of Febrace when he was a high school student at the Francisco Moreira da Costa Electronics Technical School in Santa Rita do Sapucaí (Minas Gerais).

Conrado Leite de Vitor decided to study engineering science after attending the fair

Leo RamosConrado Leite de Vitor decided to study engineering science after attending the fairLeo Ramos

One of his projects was the prototype for a voice-controlled wheelchair.  In 2008, de Vitor entered the Electronic Engineering course at Poli-USP.  During his undergraduate years he founded a startup, known as Pullup, which works in electronics.  The company was incubated at the Center for Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Technology (Cietec) on the USP campus.  “One of our projects is an electroencephalogram fitted with a device that is capable of detecting, within 30 minutes, whether a patient will have an epileptic seizure,” de Vitor explains.  The project, carried out in partnership with the company Epistemic, received an award from the Sírio-Libanês Hospital.

Local Effect
The report produced by the organizers of Febrace also presents regional data.  In 14 years, participants of the fair have included students and teachers from more than 900 municipalities from all Brazilian states.  In 2016 alone, about 62,000 students have taken part in 125 science fairs, including state, municipal, and local events affiliated with Febrace.  “More recently, looking at areas outside São Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul, we have seen increased participation by students in states like Ceará and Bahia.  We credit this to actions taken by states to encourage students to begin research while in high school and for the schools to hold fairs,” says Lopes.  Projects submitted directly or via affiliated fairs are reviewed by professors and researchers who serve on the pre-selection, selection, and evaluation committees that designate the finalists from each state to attend the exhibition at USP.  During the show, the evaluators identify the best entries in each category, in addition to those who will go on to attend Intel ISEF.

The introduction of the Bahia Science Fair (Feciba), conceived in 2010 by the Anísio Teixeira Institute, helps explain the decision by students and teachers from that state to attend Febrace.  The organization held a teacher training project in Bahia in partnership with the state science fair.  Following the evaluation of that project, a training program was developed and in September 2013, Febrace and Intel launched a platform for Interactive Learning in Sciences and Engineering (Apice), to support the study of science through the development of research projects and their presentation at science fairs and shows.  “These courses are designed for managers, teachers, and students.  The educational materials are free and available online,” Lopes says.  The platform already has more than 30,000 users.

It is no coincidence that attention is being paid to teachers.  Between 2003 and 2016, more than 2,900 teachers from public and private schools have attended Febrace as advisors or coordinators of the students.  “We also learn a lot from the fair.  It is an opportunity to experiment with new ways of teaching,” says Pedro Ismael da Silva Junior, a researcher at the Special Laboratory for Applied Toxinology at the Butantan Institute.  In 2008, he was contacted by Ivan Lavander Cândido Ferreira, now completing his undergraduate studies in biology at USP and already admitted to a fast-track doctoral program at Oxford University in England.  The student was interested in studying spiders and had asked him for help.  “Because he was so insistent, I finally agreed to let Ferreira work in my laboratory,” da Silva recalls.  That was the first time that Butantan had accepted a high school student as an intern in its laboratories.  Ferreira discovered the presence of a substance in spider eggs that had a potential for use in antibiotics and the result was presented at Febrace in 2009 (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 221).

Since then, da Silva has been continually approached by high school students from different parts of Brazil.  “In the past seven years, I have advised 10 high school students from public and private schools who have participated in Febrace,” says da Silva, who is currently advising two students from Rio Grande do Sul.  “It’s one way to promote the training of new researchers.”