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Science on wheels

New guide maps Brazil’s 32 traveling science museums

The UFMG Ponto Traveling Museum: inside the trailer there are modules about the human senses...

LÉO RAMOSThe UFMG Ponto Traveling Museum: inside the trailer there are modules about the human senses…LÉO RAMOS

The cargo transported by driver Daniel Batista da Silva is different from anything he has ever carried in all his 25 years of experience. “I am carrying a science museum,” he says, pointing to the huge tractor-trailer parked in a large open-air lot. The truck is home to the Science Caravan, a traveling museum developed in 2007 by the Sciences and Distance Higher Education Center Foundation of the state of Rio de Janeiro (Fundação CECIERJ). From July 12-18, 2015 it was one of the attractions at the 67th annual meeting of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), held on the campus of the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar). It is one of the 32 mobile science museums operating in Brazil that sponsor activities in communities and municipalities far from major urban centers. They are listed in the recently-published guide entitled Centros e museus de ciência do Brasil 2015 (Science Centers and Museums in Brazil 2015), published jointly by the Brazilian Association of Science Centers and Museums (ABCMC), Science House at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation’s Museum of Life. The previous edition of the guide, published in 2009, had listed only 20 projects of this kind in Brazil. “Traveling museums can display scientific collections and exhibitions, reaching primarily people such as residents of small and medium-size municipalities or the outskirts of big cities who, due to geography or their social situation lack access to scientific equipment,” explains José Ribamar Ferreira, ABCMC president.

The Science Caravan has been making the rounds of neighborhoods and communities in the city of Rio de Janeiro for seven years. It has also been to 40 municipalities of the coastal lowland region of Rio de Janeiro State and received visits from 260,000 elementary, middle and high school students from both public and private school systems. Seen from afar, the truck and its two giant reinforced tarpaulin extensions that house the collection remind one of a circus. As they approach, children and young people encounter microscopes, concave and convex mirrors, and a Van de Graaf generator that produces an electrostatic charge that makes their hair stand on end—just a few of the experiments that become a source of knowledge, inspiration, and amusement. “A lot of the residents of needy communities in Rio de Janeiro don’t feel they belong in that kind of environment so they don’t visit science museums even when they live near one,” says Jessica Norberto Rocha, coordinator of the Science Caravan. To reach that public, she says, she had to obtain authorization from leaders of organized crime before setting up the structure on the hills of Rio de Janeiro. With cooperation from city hall, she also took the center to the General Department of Socio-educational Action (Degase) where minors who have committed crimes are held. “We are usually welcome in those places,” she observes.

... and a room that simulates the life of a fetus in the uterus

Léo Ramos… and a room that simulates the life of a fetus in the uterusLéo Ramos

The increase in the number of traveling museums is a result of the trend toward “mobilization” at universities, research institutions, state and municipal government agencies, funding agencies and the federal government as they seek to expand the public’s contact with initiatives intended to popularize science in Brazil.  According to the Research Project on Public Perception of Science and Technology 2015, conducted by the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation (MCTI), only 12% of Brazilians over the age of 16 had visited science and technology museums or centers in the 12 months prior to the survey.  Although that figure is triple the percentage reported in 2006 (4%), the rate is low compared with European countries and the United States, where annual visiting rates can be as high as 20% of the population.

“Quite a few mayors have contacted the traveling museums to ask that they visit their cities,” says José Luis Schifino Ferraro, coordinator of the Traveling Museum Project (Promusit) sponsored by the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul (PUC-RS).  Created in 2001 by biologist Jeter Bertoletti, Promusit was Brazil’s first traveling museum and became the prototype.  In 14 years it has traversed all the regions of Brazil and even gone to places near the borders with other countries, receiving visitors from Argentina and Uruguay.  About 75 experiments in physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics have been set up outside the huge tractor-trailer rig.  The interior has been converted to a 50-seat auditorium where documentary films are shown in 3D.

The CECIERJ Science Caravan has experiments such as a gyroscope

LÉO RAMOSThe CECIERJ Science Caravan has experiments such as a gyroscope…LÉO RAMOS

The Promusit model was inspired by the Shell Questacon Science Circus, a mobile museum developed by the Australian government’s National Science and Technology Center in partnership with Shell.  The project has traveled through about 500 Australian cities, including 90 indigenous communities, since it was created in 1985.  But the advent of mobile museums dates back to the 1950s when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) published a manual that encouraged the heads of art and culture museums to develop mobile activities, even suggesting prototypes that used adapted tractor trailer rigs.  It wasn’t long before institutions like the Science Museum of Virginia in the United States and the National Council of Science Museums in India also seized upon the concept.

The Promusit experience has inspired other initiatives.  In 2004, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and the MCTI published a request for proposals entitled Mobile Science that called for nine projects and helped strengthen the model in Brazil.  Then, in 2007, the Minas Gerais Research Foundation (FAPEMIG) allocated R$490,000 to set up the traveling museum of the Pedagogical Center of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG).  “We used those funds to purchase the tractor and the adapted chassis,” recalls Tânia Margarida Lima Costa, director of the School of Basic and Vocational Education at UFMG and coordinator of the project.  The interior of the tractor-trailer houses five interactive rooms that present subjects such as intrauterine life, the human senses, biomes, cities, and animals that live in the depths of the oceans.  More than 40 experiments are set up outside the truck.  “We encourage the public to think of science as being everyone’s heritage,” emphasizes Lara Mucci Poenaru, educational coordinator of the museum.  One of the objectives is to decentralize the dissemination of science and take research projects carried out at UFMG to places where resources are scarce, both within and outside Minas Gerais.  Since 2012, the initiative has traveled to Acre, Brasília, Pernambuco, São Paulo, and various cities in Minas Gerais.

Of the 27 states in Brazil, only 12 have traveling museums.  Of the 32 initiatives, almost half are concentrated in the Southeast.  The rest are distributed among the Northeast (8), South (5), Central-West (3), and North (1).  “It is no easy task to decentralize activities that promote the popularization of science,” says José Ribamar, of the ABCMC.  We must also deal with the unexpected whenever we transport knowledge in a big truck.  “In Recife, our truck got stuck in the mud and we had to improvise a bridge using wooden planks,” Lima Costa recalls.  “That is the less glamorous side of scientific outreach.”

...mirrors that create optical illusions...

LÉO RAMOS…mirrors that create optical illusions…LÉO RAMOS

Those responsible for the traveling museums warn that the effect on the minds of the public is usually more fleeting than what is provided by a permanent museum, however.  The mobile units usually stay from five days to a week in the cities they visit.  According to Ferraro, of the PUC-RS Museum of Science and Technology, museums with fixed structures create the perception that scientific knowledge has taken root there.  “That is important in creating a local scientific culture and a perennial reference for that community.”  Physicist Ernesto Kemp, a professor at the University of Campinas (Unicamp), says the traveling museum is a good alternative until such time as a permanent physical space becomes available.  That was the case, for example, with Unicamp’s NanoAventura exhibition, which started as a mobile unit in 2005 and in 2008 found a long-term home on the university campus.  “A permanent museum is a place where knowledge can always be accessed,” observes Kemp who currently coordinates the Challenge Workshop, a project sponsored by the Unicamp Exploratory Museum of Sciences that has traveled to more than 10 municipalities in the state of São Paulo since 2008.  It is a mobile workshop equipped with tools and materials such as wood and cork that high school students can use to solve technological challenges.

... and a Van de Graaf generator

LÉO RAMOS… and a Van de Graaf generatorLÉO RAMOS

In order to help make the impressions left behind by the traveling museums more lasting, some initiatives include educational activities that are carried out with local residents.  The Science Caravan, for example, is usually accompanied on its travels by another project created by CECIERJ: the Mobile Science Plaza. The purpose is to provide continuing education for elementary school teachers. It offers more than 40 workshops in the fields of biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics and arts in which teachers are encouraged to teach sciences in a more interactive manner, using experiment kits. The classes are given by professors from CECIERJ itself and from partner universities and institutions like the UFRJ and the Museum of Astronomy and Related Sciences (MAST).

The Science Caravan also usually recruits 15 residents from the visited locale to work as volunteer cultural mediators alongside its permanent team of 20. In general, the participants are undergraduate students, high school teachers, and city government employees who take a distance learning course about mediation at museums, offered by CECIERJ, and receive a certificate upon completions. “We are leaving a legacy in the city. There are cases of people who have set up scientific outreach groups in public schools after going through our training,” says Rocha. The UFMG Ponto Traveling Museum also involves local educators and trains them to serve as mediators via a distance learning course. “It’s a way to build a connection with the community,” Lima Costa notes.

Other initiatives, however, avoid recruiting people who are not affiliated with the project. The Oswaldo Cruz Foundation Mobile Science initiative, for example, keeps a register of mediators, most of them undergraduate students at universities in Rio de Janeiro, and calls upon them according to their availability for travel. The work is paid. “These are people who have taken courses in scientific outreach and education,” says Marcus Soares, coordinator of Mobile Science. The collection carried in its truck includes such features as a bank of microscopes and interactive games about vaccines. The 26-person team, including drivers, technicians, professors and mediators, also includes circus and theatre performers who present skits. In 2015, the museum will sponsor an event to discuss the relationship between art and science in the works of noted Brazilian painter Candido Portinari (1903-1962).

The SENAI Mobile Nanotechnology School: the inside of the trailer has been converted to a microscopy laboratory

LÉO RAMOSThe SENAI Mobile Nanotechnology School: the inside of the trailer has been converted to a microscopy laboratoryLÉO RAMOS

In São Paulo, the Mobile Nanotechnology School operated by the National Industrial Training Service (SENAI) is particularly known for reproducing the laboratory environment. Equipment such as an scanning electron microscope, a microstructure fabrication system, a particle analyzer, and computers were installed inside the trailer. “We want to spark the students’ interest in nanotechnology, a fascinating field but one about which little is known,” says Gilderlon Fernandes Oliveira, coordinator of SENAI’s mobile unit. The initiative also shows visitors the ways in which nanotechnology can be applied to industry, such as by producing t-shirts made with bactericidal fabrics, microprocessors, nutritional supplements, and medicines.