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From public school to university

In its seventh edition, the USP knowledge competition exclusively for students from the state education system has a record number of registrations and seeks to encourage young undergraduate students

Experience with the CUCO helped 18-year-old Marcela Tonelli to enroll on the bachelor's degree in physics at USP this year (left). Participating in the competition, Geovânio Monteiro, age 20, passed vestibular exams at USP in 2022 and 2023. Hyan Tuzi was awarded with exemption of the FUVEST fee and, in 2022, enrolled at USP for the bachelor's degree in applied and computational mathematics (right)

Personal archive | Léo Ramos Chaves / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

Student Marcela Amanda Tonelli, 18 years old, had the desire to study for a degree in physics when she began the first year of high school at a public school in the municipality of São Carlos, in the state of São Paulo. In that same year, 2021, due to encouragement from teachers, she registered to participate in the CUCO, the University of São Paulo (USP) Knowledge and Opportunities Competition. The 18-question online test, covering natural sciences, human sciences, mathematics, and languages, was her first encounter with an exam similar to the vestibular (the Brazilian university entrance exam) and she was able to test her knowledge and the control of her nervousness with two hours to answer everything.

With the best performance in her class, she won a prescientific initiation scholarship on the USP city campus, including weekly physics classes and the development of a research project. In 2022, she jumped a year and went directly to the third year. She competed again and won access to remote courses to prepare for the vestibular exam. “I discovered that public universities have places reserved for enrollment from public education, which made me feel more confident,” she says. She was approved for a bachelor’s degree in physics at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) and at the USP Institute of Physics (IFSC) and opted for the latter, where she enrolled in 2023.

Tonelli is part of the 4,492 students from the São Paulo state education system that have taken part in the CUCO and been able to enroll at one of the USP campuses in the last six years — around 55% are women. In its seventh edition, held in August, the free competition exclusively for public high school students, beat its record: there were 141,254 registrations — compared to 18,000 in its first edition — from 3,012 schools spread across 605 municipalities.

In total, 117,651 students actually took the test and 15,888 were awarded with certificates and supplementary online training courses to prepare them for the vestibular exam, with the right to ask questions in discussion forums with undergraduate students from USP. Some schools will also organize visits to the university’s campuses and the 15 that had the greatest uptake of students to the CUCO will receive lectures on curiosities about USP and a physics show with demonstrations of experiments. “Despite the name of the program, the final objective is not to promote a contest, but to encourage the training process of the students, bringing them closer to the public university and showing that it is a place for them,” states physicist and educator Herbert Alexandre João, of the IFSC-USP, executive coordinator of the CUCO.

A university extension action from the Vem Saber program (come find out program, in English), linked to the IFSC, the competition originated to increase the access of public high school students to public higher education. It was created in response to the USP quota policy for students from public schools, approved in 2017 for enrollment in 2018, which gradually increased from 37% to the current 50% of reserved undergraduate places, 37.5% of which are aimed at self-declared Black, mixed race, and Indigenous (PPI) candidates. “Just creating the places is not enough, the students need to know they have this right. Nobody chooses what they don’t know exists,” observes the physicist.

In the previous editions, just one student from each class was awarded. This year, at the request of the students and teachers themselves, the best three students from each class will be classified with gold-, silver-, and bronze-level certificates.

One of the prizes that the students receive is access to additional courses offered by USP, but the initiative is not intended to be a popular preparatory course for the vestibular exam, a model that for decades has helped to prepare young people with socioeconomic vulnerabilities for vestibular exams. In the IFSC, the members of the CUCO team usually suggest these preparatory courses for competitors from the city of São Carlos. “Our job is to offer additional training,” says physicist Antonio Carlos Hernandes, of the IFSC, creator of the CUCO, who was the associate dean for undergraduate studies at USP when the reservation of places was implemented.

As the focus is on the learning process, the students are classified within their year and their school. “Each school has its reality and this way the students compete with the same educational conditions,” observes Hernandes, who organized a book about the CUCO, released this year. “The idea behind this system is to encourage the students to remain motivated,” he adds. After taking the test, composed of specific questions for each year based on curricular content, the assessment commission defined a passing grade, calculated from the average state performance.

Hyan Tuzi, 20 years of age, explains that he felt dispirited about his studies when he was in the third grade of public high school in the municipality of Penápolis, in 2021, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. He considered taking the vestibular exam, without much certainty still, and even asked for exemption from the FUVEST fee, but forgot to attach a document and had his request rejected. “That was when I remembered that the school coordinator had mentioned that those who had been awarded in the CUCO that year would be exempt from the FUVEST fee. I decided to participate,” he recalls. He was well placed, won the exemption, and used the online courses which he also had access to and prepared for the vestibular exam at home. Interested in exact sciences, in 2022 he enrolled on the bachelor’s degree in applied and computational mathematics at USP. In 2023, the awarded students will not have the right to this exemption, because the partnership with FUVEST has been interrupted.

Marcos Santos / USP imagensStudents that took part in the competition in 2019, when it had an in-person phase (left). On the USP campus in Pirassununga, students received certificates for taking part in the CUCOMarcos Santos / USP imagens

The role of the teachers
The online exam for the CUCO is just one of the stages, according to Hernandes. From registering on the website, to enrollment, to the exam itself, and then accessing the content created for the students, everything has been planned so that they get to know the paths they will need to take when they sign up for university selection processes.

This year, with the implementation of its own platform — the program was previously hosted on the FUVEST website — 106 collaborating teachers, spread across 91 boards of education from the state, will have access to the performance of the participating classes. The idea is that they take this information to directors and pedagogic coordinators, who can assess which areas need strengthening in their institution. “We are just the organizers. Everything really happens thanks to the mobilization of the teachers and boards,” says Hernandes. The team usually visits schools throughout the year to understand their demands.

Patrícia Chade, coordinator of sciences and biology of the board of education of the city of Araçatuba, in the state of São Paulo, is an expert on the curriculum of the two subjects, and is one of the collaborating teachers on the initiative. She usually encourages participation from teaching staff and students in projects that stimulate the youngsters to consider a university career, including the CUCO. “As soon as the deadlines for registration are released, I send messages to the coordinators and teachers in WhatsApp groups. I monitor the registrations from the schools using the online platform and encourage the ones that are slower,” she says. “The teachers report that, as the students are taking a USP exam, many lose their fear of the vestibular exam and they feel more encouraged.”

There is also the figure of the encouraging teacher — this year, there were 5,131 registered. For the first time, 91 of them were awarded, from the most voted by the students, with full scholarships for 18-month USP/ESALQ MBA courses. Biology teacher Isabela Garcia, of the José Augusto Lopes Borges State School, in Araçatuba, was one of those awarded and she intends to take the school management course.

Besides biology classes, she is responsible for the Life Project subject, in which the students from elementary and high school set their goals towards a career. She uses these classes to stimulate discussion about access to public universities and to promote knowledge competitions.

One of the students who received encouragement from Garcia was 17-year-old Laura Sutil da Silva, who is in the third year of high school. She aced the CUCO exam this year and was awarded the gold-level certificate. “I didn’t believe in myself very much; I didn’t think I was so capable. But, after seeing my good performance this year, I began to trust my ability to try for a place in federal and state universities more,” she says, in doubt between taking the vestibular exam for physics or zoology.

Isabela Garcia states that participation in the CUCO can also help students prepare for the Vestibular Paulista Seriado, known as the Provão Paulista, which will begin to be applied this year — the grades of students from the third year will be considered for enrollment in 2024. Whereas next year, the accumulated grade from the exams done in the 2nd and 3rd grades of high school will be used. And in 2025 the assessments in the three grades will be considered. According to the State Department of Education, there will be around 13,000 places distributed in higher education courses in the three universities in the state of São Paulo — USP, the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), and São Paulo State University (UNESP) — in the São Paulo State Online University (UNIVESP), and in the Schools of Technology (FATECS) of the Paula Souza Center. “The CUCO exam is a preview, because it covers general knowledge and can act as a gauge for the students to evaluate the areas that they need to study more,” observes Garcia.

Almost invisible barriers
The years of experience with the competition allow the organizers to map what they call “invisible barriers” faced by the students before the vestibular exam. Back in 2017, when the project began, one of the difficulties was the lack of documents required for the registration, like not having an Individual Taxpayer Registration Number (CPF). “We take this information to the Department of Education, which began to advise the students to get their CPF immediately. Today it has become something that rarely appears,” reports Hernandes.

Students and teachers also get confused when filling out the socioeconomic questionnaire for requesting student aid offered by the universities or the exemption of the vestibular exam fee. “Many think that it is the family’s monthly income and not the per capita amount. A student whose family is composed of five people with a total monthly income of around R$8,000 [less than 1.5 minimum wages per person] has the right to request certain aid and they don’t realize it,” observes Herbert.

This year, although the CUCO has received around 180,000 registrations on its website, a process in which the student creates a username and password, around 40,000 students have not enrolled for the exam, which is the second step. “Many think that they are already enrolled with the registration. The same can occur when enrolling for the FUVEST vestibular exam, because the process is the same,” explains the executive coordinator of the project. “They seem like small details, but they can make the difference between enrolling at a university or losing a year of studies. Every edition we take the difficulties that we notice to the boards of education,” he adds.

According to the teachers interviewed for this article, another recurring fear among students in the classroom is not being able to stay in a new city if they are approved and need to move in order to continue their studies. Because of this, one of the prizes this year for participants will be a live broadcast about the USP permanence programs.

For a long time, 20-year-old Geovânio Alves Monteiro, a student from a state school in the municipality of Casa Branca, São Paulo State, had not considered taking the vestibular exam for a public university. He didn’t know about the reservation of places or the aid programs. At the time, he juggled working in a supermarket with his studies. “What I saw in my city was people that studied in private universities in the region,” he recalls. He took the CUCO exams during high school, was the best placed in his year in the third year and also won exemption from the FUVEST fee, which encouraged him to take the vestibular exam.

In 2021, he enrolled in the exact sciences degree at IFSC, but at the end of 2022 decided he wanted to change subject. He went through the entire selection process again, and in 2023 began the course in social sciences at the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences (FFLCH). He managed to get a student grant to move to a new city again, this time São Paulo. “I have already started participating in research groups and intend to get a scientific initiation grant. I want to be a researcher,” he says.

HERNANDES, A.C. et al. CUCo. Aproximando os estudantes de escolas públicas da universidade. São Carlos: Pró Cultural Encadernadora e Editora, 91p. 2023. ISBN: 978-65-265-0265-5.