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Science reaches out to the public

10th annual Brazilian Science and Technology Week promotes activities in 700 cities

A giant gyroscope

Eduardo CesarA giant gyroscopeEduardo Cesar

Local residents quickly noticed the unusual number of school buses in October 2013 near the municipal park in the center of Limeira, inland São Paulo State. Those buses brought roughly 3,000 of the region’s public school students every day to the Science Center installed within the park. It was Limeira’s first Science, Technological Inclusion and Tourism Festival, the city’s three-week debut as a participant in Brazilian Science and Technology Week, the 10th edition of which was held from October 21 to 27 in over 700 Brazilian cities. The team responsible for S&T Week in Limeira started the local festival on October 10, well before the official opening. “We started early because there were too many activities to fit into a single week,” said José Carlos Neres de Assis, S&T Week coordinator in Limeira and director of the Science Center, run by the city’s Department of Education.

Since S&T Week was first introduced in 2004, a growing number of Brazilian cities has been taking part in the initiative, which has grown into an extensive scientific outreach project. In its first edition, 252 cities promoted a total of 1,842 activities. In 2013, 700 cities signed up and approximately 30,000 activities were offered. “Nowhere else in the world is there a similar event with such a vast territorial scope. Among the larger countries, India and China do not promote a national science and technology week; and the USA and Canada have only local or regional weeks, without the nationwide coordination that we have here,” explains physicist and S&T Week founder Ildeu de Castro Moreira, this year’s winner of the 33rd José Reis Award for the Dissemination of Science and Technology, largely in recognition of his work as head of S&T Week and his science outreach efforts with the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI).

During Brazilian Science and Technology Week, cities are free to organize their own events, which can include science fairs, competitions, workshops, science pavilions in public spaces, presentations, and screenings of scientific videos, among others. “In some cities, the Week produced lasting results. The public’s positive response to S&T Week activities in Belford Roxo, state of Rio de Janeiro, led the city to organize a municipal department of science and technology whose activities will include organizing the event every year,” says Douglas Falcão Silva, S&T Week general coordinator at the MCTI, the position held by Moreira until 2012.

Tree climbing

Eduardo CesarTree climbingEduardo Cesar

Designed to inspire the general public to take an interest in science, especially children and youth, the topic for Brazilian S&T Week 2013 was “Science, Health and Sports”, with activities focusing on teaching how the human body works while playing sports. The topic was chosen as a way of discussing the upcoming global sporting events to be hosted in Brazil, most prominently the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. Many cities offered interactive activities involving different types of sports, as well as oral presentations given by athletes.

In addition to permanent attractions offered by the Science Festival, like the planetarium, the mini-farm, and the Biomes of Brazil and Eyes on the sky exhibits, the city of Limeira also promoted activities with local champions and medalists from the Paralympic Games, who talked about the impact of sports in overcoming physical disability. In the state of São Paulo, roughly 37 cities offered S&T Week activities in 2013. In the capital, the main initiative was coordinated by the University of São Paulo (USP). “The university has been hosting the event for the past two years at CienTec Park, and this year it received about 2,000 visitors per day and mobilized more than 300 volunteers,” says Roseli de Deus Lopes, an S&T Week coordinator for São Paulo State.

“Our goal was to show young Brazilians that knowledge can be gained through examples from everyday life, and that curiosity can often be stimulated through simple initiatives,” says Fábio Ramos Dias de Andrade, director of CienTec Park, affiliated with  the Office of the Dean of Culture and University Extension at USP. The Week’s main features included a giant gyroscope, a forest trail, and tree climbing followed by crossing from one platform to the other on a tightrope, using a specially equipped bicycle. “I’d never done that before. While I was up there, I got to breathe fresh air, get a closer look at the tree leaves, and learn about the forces of physics and gravity,” says Patrícia Rocha Cabral, 14, a first-year high school student at Simon Bolívar State School in the city of Diadema, after climbing a tree with the help of undergraduate student volunteers from the USP Biosciences Institute. The Biology Institute stand was one of the highlights in the CienTec Park pavilion, where different departments of USP and other institutions set up their exhibits. At first sight, the Institute’s main attractions — live insects — sparked revulsion among the visitors. But fear quickly gave way to curiosity, and soon everyone was asking to “pet” the bugs. The biggest hits among children were a female stick insect, 22 centimeters long and looking very much like a wooden twig; the world’s biggest cockroach, the Madagascar variety that can grow 5 to 9 centimeters long; and the largest cockroach in Brazil, known as the “ghost cockroach”.

Students take part in the opening ceremony for Brazilian Science and Technology Week in the city of Parintins, state of Amazonas

Tiago LighterStudents take part in the opening ceremony for Brazilian Science and Technology Week in the city of Parintins, state of AmazonasTiago Lighter

In inland São Paulo State, neighboring cities joined forces for increased impact and higher turnouts. One example mentioned by Professor Lopes was the city of Bauru, which has been taking part in the project since its first edition in 2004, and which hosts various S&T Week activities. About 30 institutions participated in the city’s Science Fest, promoted as part of S&T Week and visited by approximately 10,000 people. Some of these institutions (and visitors) came from nearby cities such as Botucatu and Jaú. The event in Bauru also inspired other cities to take part in Brazilian S&T Week. “We were contacted by institutions from cities like Franca, São José do Rio Preto and Adamantina asking us to explain the model, which is organized in a horizontal and decentralized way, as opposed to top-down. The same happened with universities in North and Northeast Brazil,” explains journalist Luís Victorelli, S&T Week coordinator in Bauru.

Bauru has a significant scientific output associated with its Dental School and its Hospital for the Rehabilitation of Craniofacial Anomalies (both of them operated by USP); the Lauro de Souza Lima Institute, which specializes in Hansen’s disease (leprosy); and campuses of the Universidade Estadual Paulista (Unesp), in addition to private-sector entities and institutions. The city’s scientific community views S&T Week as an opportunity to raise public awareness of science, says Victorelli. The fruits of their engagement also include the Bauru Association for Science and Technology (ABCT), established in 2012, which organizes scientific outreach activities throughout the city; and the Science and Technology Outreach Park and School (also known as the Bauru Science Station), created in 2010 and currently under construction.

Brazilian Science and Technology Week fills the role of offering scientific activities to an audience that has little awareness of the subject. According to a Science and Technology Perception Survey conducted in 2010 by the MCTI, only 8.3% of all Brazilians visit a science and technology center or museum each year, yet these are the platforms used worldwide to bring scientific knowledge closer to people’s everyday lives. A survey conducted in 2009 by the Brazilian Association of Science Centers and Museums revealed that Brazil has more than 190 science centers and museums.  “This is still a small number. We need to multiply these spaces across this country, but that costs a lot of money,” says coordinator Douglas Falcão Silva.

Losing momentum
Ildeu de Castro Moreira says that the admission of new cities — such as Cachoeiro do Itapemirim, in the state of Espírito Santo, and Limeira —, especially from inland areas of Brazil, shows that an annual nationwide initiative is a feasible option. “Science and Technology Week has become an event that mobilizes state, municipal, and federal governments, as well as academic and research institutions,” he says. Moreira admits that the effort has lost momentum in some cities, such as Florianópolis, which downsized its S&T Week offerings. “Since this is a decentralized event, state or municipal coordinators can be subject to local changes in policy, or in government officials,” he says.

Visitors observe an experiment during the event in Bauru

Flávio GuedesVisitors observe an experiment during the event in BauruFlávio Guedes

Brazil’s Northern states provide the strongest examples of success in the country’s inland areas. In 2012, Amazonas became the only state to mobilize every one of its cities — a total of 62 — to host activities for S&T Week. “This is a step forward in our challenge of bringing science to less developed regions of this country,” says Odenildo Teixeira Sena, state secretary for Science, Technology and Innovation and coordinator of S&T Week in Amazonas. To celebrate the feat, the opening ceremony for this year’s event was not held in the city of Manaus — where it has taken place since 2004 — but instead was transferred to Parintins, 300 kilometers away from the capital. The focus of the scheduled activities also changed: this time around, the spotlight was on innovation by small businesses funded by the government. One such company presented a salami made from the cupuaçu fruit; the other, a jam made from araza, a fruit from Western Amazonia.

Until 2007, the Amazonas State Research Foundation (Fapeam) was the only foundation supporting research in Northern Brazil. Today, Roraima is the only state in the region that does not have such an institution. According to Sena, the establishment of these foundations created a favorable environment for S&T Week in the region. The state of Rondônia, which promoted 20 activities in 2004, hosted upwards of 2,000 in 2013. According to geographer Catia Zuffo professor at the Federal University of Rondônia (Unir) and one of the state’s S&T Week coordinators since 2005, the event enables closer contact between the university and the state’s more remote communities. “This year, we even developed activities for riverside and Quilombo communities. We have a sizeable audience in rural areas,” she says. The Acqua Viva research group, coordinated by Zuffo and focused mainly on environmental topics and drainage basins, presented the results of its work during S&T Week in the state capital, Porto Velho. Through a network of volunteers, the researchers also encouraged inland cities in Rondônia to take part and promote activities for S&T Week. “I go on boat expeditions with my high school students into Guaporé Valley, where I’ve been working on a project that merges local culture with environmental awareness,” says Marlene Tomazoni, one of the group’s volunteers and a geography teacher at Princess Isabel State School in the city of São Miguel do Guaporé.

Tomazoni sets an example of how scientific outreach initiatives can be adapted to fit local conditions. “But there are difficulties, such as many cities believing that they can’t have S&T Week because they have no universities or research institutes,” says Douglas Falcão Silva from the MCTI. So the Ministry helps some cities identify their own scientific production. “If you have a factory that has developed a new process for producing fabric, that involves science, technology, and innovation. It’s not true that science needs to be done in big laboratories. You have to take local knowledge into account,” he says. Another incentive whose effects go beyond S&T Week was the 2012 addition of a new section to the Lattes Curriculum, an online résumé system operated by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). Using a new tab, researchers can now record their scientific outreach activities in their résumés. “CNPq saw that it was necessary to offer researchers a place in their résumés where they can highlight their scientific outreach activities. We believe that this is encouraging a larger number of researchers and students to take part in Science and Technology Week,” says Moreira.