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In Samba rhythm

Researchers make use of new language to take science to the general public

Science museum covers Rio Grande do Sul in a 21-meter wheeled container

While the dancers of the “Unidos da Tijuca” samba school performed in Rio de Janeiro with the theme “The art of science in an impossible time”, during the last Carnival, researchers from the Home of Science of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) commemorated the results of a daring project. Together with the Carnival organizer Paulo Barros, they reconstructed the stories of the most notable scientific discoveries, bringing them out in allegories, fantasies, sounds and rhythm.

Some even feared that the plot was a repeat of the Samba do crioulo doido (The samba of the crazy black man), the prime work of Stanislaw Ponte Preta, the pseudonym of Sérgio Porto. Nevertheless, Dollys, Santos Dumonts, alchemists, Carnival dancers wrapped up in spirals of DNA and even Ronald Hoffmann, Nobel chemistry prize winner of 1981, blended into syncretism and samba to excite the public and guarantee the samba school the title of runner-up to the champion of the Rio de Janeiro Carnival of 2004. “It was the right moment to see what popularizing science means “, recalls Fátima Brito, the executive director of the Home of Science.

Initiatives such as that of the UFRJ team are increasingly frequent throughout the country. Also, during this Carnival in the city of Manaus, four thousand kilometers from the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, the Samba school “A Grande Família” (The Big Family) paid homage to the fifty years of the Amazon Research Institute (Inpa). The parade’s opening float, which alluded to a research laboratory, was followed by groups representing researchers, beekeepers, and medicinal plants, among others.

The final float, which has represented the postgraduate program in Tropical Biology and Natural Resources, led the group that represented fish farming, future researchers and women from the Sstate of Bahia. And it even gave a lift to the carnival block named Eles e Elas, formed by gays and sympathizers, even though they didn’t make up part of the official group but were there because of the school’s tradition.

The impact of the presence of science themes on the Carnivals in Rio and Manaus, and the reception by the general public delighted the physicist Ildeu Camargo Moreira, the director of the recently established Department for the Popularizing and Spreading of Science, of the Social Inclusion of Science and Technology Secretary at the Ministry of Science and Technology (MST). For him, these are two explicit examples of how it is possible to bring science and culture closer in the country. “Science is technical and has nothing to do with culture and the arts. A group of actions need to be adopted to bring them together.”

Science through the TV
Since the beginning of April, Moreira had been involved in the task of identifying, articulating and supporting actions that consolidate a culture of science education throughout the country. He has visited all of Brazil to made a wide survey of the state of the art of popularizing and spreading science. He realized that scientific diffusion has improved a lot over the last two decades, with a substantial increase in the number of magazines, books, sites and a greater opening up of the media to the theme. “But the situation of scientific education and the popularizing of science is very far from being reasonable”, he observes. The problems run from the formation of “communicators” to the absence of policies on the theme.

On concluding the diagnosis, Camargo Moreira then began the elaboration of a large project for the popularization and spreading of science and technology, which forecasts items from the support for the creation of new science museums to stimulating itinerant exhibitions, including efforts for the widening of the presence of science on the media, mainly on TV. “Along with the magazine Ciência Hoje, from the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science (SBPC), we are negotiating with the Rede Globo network for the realization of rapid insertions on the theme and, with the same objective, we are making contact with the TV channels linked to Radiobrás”, Moreira says. This idea will also be extended to the printing media.

And further: in partnership with the Journalism Laboratory (Labjor) of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), the MST – by way of the Financier of Studies and Projects (Finep) – is going to support the building of a portal for the popularization of science and technology, which will bring together the initiatives available on communication in science and scientific journalism, among others. Also, there is a plan for a national forum for the popularization of science, involving the Ministry of Education and other government organs, with sectors representative of the scientific community in all of the country. “The forum has to be of a national character, since our goal is to implant a national science policy”, he justifies.

This group of initiatives will reach its apex during the National Week of Science and Technology that the MST is striving to organize during the second quarter, which will bring together schools, universities, development agencies, among others, in the simultaneous promotion of events linked to research and knowledge. The MST’s proposal intends to fit in with the policies for the stimulation of innovation in the country. “In order to stimulate innovation one needs to create a mentality favorable to the wider public”, physicist Moreira argues.

Some practical measures have already been taken, demonstrating the willingness of the federal government to make the project advance. For example, the Finep has destined R$ 1.3 million from the Energy Sectorial Fund for the spreading of information on the theme. The Science Museums Center received R$ 4 million for the widening of projects – which includes the incubation of museums – and soon, resources for the support of “mobile science” projects such as the Itinerant Museum Project (Promusit), of the Catholic Pontifical University of Rio Grande do Sul (PUC-RS) will be announced.

A truck container
The Promusit, in reality, is a truck container of 21 meters in length, pulled by a truck, which transports sixty experiments and scores of pedagogical kits used in workshops and courses directed towards students and professors. Emptied with the assistance of a lift capable of supporting one and a half tons, the wheeled container has been transformed into a modern auditorium with air conditioning, audio equipment, home theater, communication system via the Internet and satellite, among others.

The Promusit team is made up of 12 teachers, 10 specialist technicians, and 10 trainees trained in the teaching of science “in a lucid and interactive manner”, as Jetter Bertoletti, the director of the Science and Technology Museum of PUC-RS, and the brains behind the project, would say. Unveiled in 2001, this project counts upon the support of the Vitae Foundation, the Santander Bank, the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), and the university itself. Last year the mobile museum was visited by more than 200,000 people in more than twenty cities in the state of Rio Grande do Sul . “The museum blends the process of the popularization of science with the initial and continuous education of teachers in the scientific area”, says director Bertoletti.

“Popularization and science education intertwine”, says Leopoldo de Meis, a full professor of biochemistry at the Biomedical Science Institute of the UFRJ, author of a series of comics books about science, a theater play and a film on science. “New knowledge has been expanding exponentially. Very often information remains confused and it’s difficult to take decisions”, he observed. For some years now he has been searching obsessively to develop a language adequate for making scientific information more palatable for youngsters and children.

He realizes that outside of the academic environment, newspapers, magazines, TV stations, and other media, present science to the citizen emphasizing its application, use and impact for the development of the country. “Rarely do they speak about the lucid side of science, linked to man’s desire to understand the Universe”, he says. This omission has contributed to scientists being represented as “crazy, confused and solitary” and as science as a “logical” activity, exempt from creativity as he has confirmed in research carried out with children and youngsters who passed the university entrance exam in the decade of the 1980’s.

On the other hand, art was understood by this same public as synonymous with emotion, creativity and novelty. It was then that he decided to learn the language of the arts in order to teach science. In 1996, with the support of the Vitae Foundation and FAPESP, he launched his first almanac: O método científico [The Scientific Method], distributed to schools. In 1998 he wrote his second: A respiração e a 1a lei da termodinâmica ou… a alma da matéria [Respiration and the 1st Law of Thermodynamics or – the soul of matter]. And he is preparing to launch a third about the history of vaccines.

Various other experiences on the interface between science and art are being developed in the country. Science in the Scene, one of the projects from the Life Museum of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), is one of them. The first play, The Star Messenger, by Ronaldo Nogueira da Gama, which told of the life of Galileo Galilei, has reached a public estimated at 28,000 people, and the second, The Kissing Bug Mystery, relates the series of events that led to the discovery of the illness by Carlos Chagas and has been on the stage since 2000.

The Monochord of Pythagoras
The integration between science and art is also the chief purpose of the program of the Science Station in São Paulo, currently under the administration of the University of Sao Paulo (USP). Until the middle of June, children and youngsters can assist the play The Monochord of Pythagoras, a lesson-spectacle that mixes music and mathematics by way of the use of musical scales discovered by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras. In the text the author and actor Pedro Paulo Salles interprets a popular artist from the Northeast who tells the story using string stories (cordel) that were told to him by his forefathers about the creation of the monochord – a musical instrument of one chord only –, and the experiments and deductions of Pythagoras in order to attain the musical scales.

“The theater, by way of its communicative potential, figures as a fundamental tool for learning and scientific diffusion”, comments Cauê Matos, the coordinator of the Scenic Arts Center of the Science Station, responsible for the elaboration of the texts. The mounting of the spectacles is carried out by the Science Station Theater Group of the Cooperative Paulista Theatre. The expectation is that Pythagoras follows the same career success as The Star of Tomorrow, put on some 130 times for a public of 25,000 people.

Through an initiative of the CNPq, the Science Station was inaugurated in 1987 in an old reformed shed, beside the railway station of district of Lapa, whose architecture dated back to the beginning of the 20th century. The term “Station”, as it was baptized, refers to the journeys into the world of scientific knowledge and its closeness to the train ands subway stations.

Around 1,700 children and youngsters visit the Science Station daily. “At the weekends they generally come back accompanied by their parents”, says the director, Wilson Teixeira. Besides the theater plays they can get to know the Virtual Laboratory, which presents animation and interactive games with the objective of teaching science in a lucid and enjoyable manner with the support of the Internet.

Education for citizenship
If the experiences of the UFRJ, Inpa, PUC-RS, Fiocruz and Science Station can be considered as good project models for the popularization of knowledge, the activities developed by the Research, Innovation and Diffusion Centers (Cepids), maintained by FAPESP, are examples of the success of scientific diffusion. The Cellular Therapy Center (CTC), in Ribeirão Preto, besides investigating the use of stem cells in the treatment of illnesses, is developing educational projects with primary and high school children within the public school system. And it is wagering on the development of young talent.

By way of the activities sponsored by the House of Science – maintained by the Hemocenter and which will shortly be transformed into the Museum and Laboratory of Science Teaching – and programs such as Talent Hunting, the center is developing learning methodologies that give incentive to curiosity and scientific practice. The students are selected by their teachers in schools throughout all of the region so that together they can develop activities of scientific initiation outside of the classroom. “We deal with questions that are essential for our life, not only for education in science but as well for exercising citizenship”, explains Marco Antonio Zago, the coordinator of the CTC.

The courses frequently make use of techniques of dramatization in order to convey concepts related to questions of difficult understanding, such as cloning, transgenics or the development of illnesses. For example, Joyce da Silva and Daine Dias, both fourteen years olds, wrote a theater play to warn their colleagues about breast cancer by popularizing specific concepts. In the play the patient, whose name is Maria, asks doctor Débora what was the result of the examination. The doctor responds: “You don’t have metastases. Metastases is when the tumor cells fall into the bloodstream and spread to other parts of the body. You’re a lucky woman since the nodule was in its initial phase, giving you the total capacity of being treated in time”. Maria, the two young girls reveal, is treated by doctor Débora until the illness is cured. The projects developed by the center have as their axis lessons administered by the research team, group investigations and school activities. They even include the editing of a newsletter, a site that bring information about science and other forms of expression that, as Zago states, permit to add up, in an exact measure, an understanding of the material.

Fourteen-year-old Ádamo Siena, who has been part of CTC’s student team since 2002, produced a story in cartoon form using seventy five slides based on the play, The Agony of a Cell, written and produced by him and his colleagues, with the intention of popularizing some of the concepts concerning the virus. “If the student can do it, it means that he understood, that he thought about the question and that he has the capacity to decide about the question”, observes Zago. A fan of cellular and molecular biology, Ádamo and three other colleagues from the group, were selected and are going to receive a grant under the mantle of the Junior Scientific Initiation Program, which counts upon sponsorship from FAPESP and the CNPq.

The reinforcement of teaching activities in the classrooms is also a keynote of the diffusion endeavors of the Human Genome Studies Center, another of the ten Cepids supported by the Foundation. Three volumes have already been published under the title Concepts of Biology, two educational books about human cloning and the sequencing of DNA and a didactic support guide for teachers. “The center also promotes courses for high school teachers and for journalists interested in modern genetics”, says José Mariano Amabis, the coordinator for diffusion.

Among the teachers the area of molecular genetics is practically unknown. And there is no didactic material available so that they can be informed about the themes such as paternity tests and genetically modified organisms, among others, which now make up part of the universe of doubts of the large mass of children and youngsters. “Our objective is to improve the quality of teaching, to work with basic genetic concepts and pedagogical practice”, stated Amabis.

Holograms and Newton
At another Cepid, that of Optics and Photonic Research – which brings together researchers from the Physics Institute of Unicamp, the Physics Institute of USP in Sao Carlos and the Energy and Nuclear Research Institute (Ipen) –, the television, radio and newspapers of the region are used as a vehicle for the teaching of concepts and the popularization of science. In São Carlos, for example, the Center mounted a small studio where the programs of the series Video and Science are produced, each between five and fifteen minutes duration, and which deal with fifty themes such as holograms, laser, Newton’s Laws, Kepler’s Laws, among others, all of them available to schools.

Another series, baptized as On the Trail of Scientists, already with eighteen volumes, relates the story of authors of major discoveries from Archimedes to Pascal, including the Brazilians Vital Brazil and Carlos Chagas. “All the titles, as well as being distributed to schools, are available in the video rental shops of São Carlos and those interested can take them out without cost”, explains Wanderly Bagnato, the Cepof coordinator. “There is a demand and interest, since the video shops are asking for more copies.”

The same studio produces, again in TV format, a series of lessons directed towards university students in their first or second year of exact science courses. The courses are transmitted on the University TV, distributed by the cable company Net and the Community TV. “The lessons are made use of in private universities”, advised Bagnato proudly. The Center even maintains a daily program on Radio USP – baptized with the name A Science Minute, with information on plant medicines, agro-toxins, radiotherapy, among others – and a Sunday column published in various newspapers in the region.