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That initial excitement

Research internship programs reveal universities' interest in closer relationships with secondary schools

Forging a new trail: high school students in the city of Diadema unite to solve challenges in the Poli-USP research internship program

Eduardo CesarForging a new trail: high school students in the city of Diadema unite to solve challenges in the Poli-USP research internship programEduardo Cesar

For these last three years, the day-to-day activities at the Professora Olívia Bianco State School in Piracicaba, in the state of São Paulo, have been different. The flagship of the turnaround, which is still in progress, is a partnership signed with the University of Campinas (Unicamp) in 2010 with the goal of bringing students from the second and third year of high school into contact with the university. Each year the school selects six high-performing students and, over the following 12 months, these students work on research under the guidance of Unicamp professors.  “Students who participate say it is like entering another world,” says Principal Vera Alice Castro Schiavinato. She says teens who do not participate in the program end up being motivated by classmates, who are already working in laboratories just like adults. “It’s like a chain: the students who participate in research internships influence the others, and interest in studying grows visibly in the school,” she added.

Former Olívia Bianco student, Lucas Lordello dos Santos, is now studying sports science at Unicamp. He had never set foot in a research laboratory until early 2011, when he entered the research internship program. “I believed in the stereotype that public school students can’t get into good public universities. The project not only helped me get into Unicamp, but it also made me want to go further,” said the young man, whose research project was in anatomy in the School of Dentistry. Students participating in research internships in school spend eight hours a week at university laboratories for a year, though the period may be extended if necessary.

A number of initiatives similar to those described above have managed to boost exchanges between public high schools and universities through the creation of new research internship scholarships for high school students. In the principal São Paulo state universities, for example, the number of students selected and the number of projects increased significantly. In early April, Unicamp opened its doors to 300 teenagers from schools in and near Campinas, an increase of 66% over 2010. Following the same trend, the University of São Paulo (USP) provided 512 internships in its research internship program (Pré-IC), 97 more than in 2012. In recent years, the Universidade Estadual Paulista (Unesp) also expanded its program for high school students, extending it to schools throughout the state of São Paulo and not just to the technical schools linked to the University.

Lunazzi and students perform an experiment at Unicamp

Eduardo CesarLunazzi and students perform an experiment at UnicampEduardo Cesar

At Unicamp, the Junior Research Internship Program (PICJr) was created in 2007 with the support of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), which  has granted scholarships to high school students since 2003. In the program’s first year, 119 students were selected from a group of 488 students from 43 public high schools in the cities of Campinas, Limeira and Piracicaba. The following year, the number of participating schools increased by 84% and 750 students were nominated, with 144 selected. Due to the increase in demand, with the support of FAPESP, the Office of the Dean of Research has begun to encourage faculty advisors with a contribution of R$3,000 a year to fund the activities of the participating laboratories. In 2010, with the creation of the CNPq’s other branch, the Institutional Program for High School Research Internships (Pibic-EN), Unicamp was granted more than 150 scholarships, resulting in the current 300 positions. This year, the university received 1,026 nominations for students interested in participating in the 78 projects offered by professors and researchers. Biomedical laboratories currently offer the greatest number of research areas

“In the beginning, the student is shy, but over the year he changes, and when he presents the results of the project as a poster, his quality of life has been transformed,” explains the professor Mario Fernando de Góes, advisor to Unicamp’s Office of the Dean of Research. Students receive a scholarship of R$100 and the institution pays for both lunch and transportation. According to Góes, the program’s great triumph is that it allows students to experience the everyday life of researchers and offers them the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills to apply to current scientific challenges, by building and transmitting knowledge.

Professor José Joaquin Lunazzi, at the Unicamp Gleb Wataghin Institute of Physics, has supervised 10 high school students since the beginning of the program, in projects involving three-dimensional images and digital cinema. His students are initially introduced to optical processes, and then apply what they have learned to assembling apparatuses using simple materials, mirrors, tools and cameras. “I want them to get their hands dirty, as there is not enough of that in high school,” he says. According to Lunazzi, the program benefits the advisor, who, when faced with the students’ innumerable questions, must create new ways of transferring knowledge. “I could have retired in 2002, but I wanted to continue sharing a bit of my experience with the students, learning new ways to make learning physics easier.”

Group Activities in the UFSCar Future Scientist Program

Eduardo CesarGroup Activities in the UFSCar Future Scientist ProgramEduardo Cesar

According to Belmira Bueno, coordinator of high-school research internships at USP, the idea is not to train scientists, but rather to broaden students’ education in general, so that they have more experiences and make the best choice among possible undergraduate majors. She says the university has begun developing a survey that will locate the public school students who have participated in the program since 2009. “Very soon we will have a more complete picture of where these young people ended up, how many went to college and which entered the job market,” she explains. In this case, the goal is to find out if the students attempted to attend college, and what caused Pré-IC students to not pursue higher education, if that was the case.

The USP program was implemented in 2008 and its model is different from that of other universities. It is entirely institutionalized through partnerships established in two agreements: one with the State Department of Education and the other with the Paula Souza Center. The USP Pré-IC program has had the support of the CNPq since 2010 and Santander Bank, which also pays the scholarships awarded to students.  There is even a R$220,000 contribution from Monsanto to pay for grants to high school teachers who participate as supervisors, and to hold the Annual Secondary School Research Internship Seminar. The funds are managed by the USP Foundation (FUSP). As a result, USP publishes three calls for proposals every year in order to select program participants from among students from the two (state and municipal) public school networks and students from USP’s own two high schools: the Escola da Aplicação [an experimental school connected to the School of Education] and the Lorena Technical School.

“We offer high school students the opportunity to dedicate themselves to a specific topic. It is something different than school lectures,” says USP Dean of Research, Marco Antonio Zago, who was also president of the CNPq between 2007 and 2010. According to Dean Zago, the hope is that programs such as USP’s will inspire the creation of others, with a resulting increase in scale.

Today, CNPq spends a total of R$6.7 million on high school research internship programs at 109 universities. In 2012, 4,359 scholarships were awarded based on cooperation agreements. According to the CNPq Academic Programs coordinator, Lucimar Almeida, the institution is working on improving the tools to assess and track participants through graduation. One of the difficulties in obtaining statistics is the students’ failure to update their Lattes resumes [an online CNPq platform for recording education and work experience—required of all researchers requesting grants or students requesting scholarships], because many students do not continue updating the system after completing the research internship. Another obstacle is the range of deficiencies that students suffer from the first years of school. “The problems in primary education are reflected in the results of research internship projects. We need to strengthen science and math education at an early age, because most students are weak in these areas,” he says.

But in many cases, the difficulties serve to awaken the young students from the false myth about public education: that students in public secondary schools cannot get into good public universities. “A teacher once told me that it was too late for me to catch up and try to get into a good university. Later, there I was, in my school, teaching fellow students and serving as an inspiration for others to follow the path of research too,” says Willian Apolinario de Paula, who participated in a research internship at the USP Polytechnic School in 2011 on automation and sustainability, while still attending high school at the Anecondes Alves Ferreira State School on the outskirts of Diadema. Today a student of the Federal Institute of Education, Science and Technology (IFSP), de Paula is certain that, if not for the research internship, he never would have imagined a future like the one before him. As soon as he finishes his undergraduate degree, he intends to pursue a master’s degree at USP, followed by an academic career. The Polytechnic Professor who advised de Paula, Diolino Santos Filho, said that the most important feature of the program is the potential for increasing knowledge at the school. “What most encourages me to participate in this experiment is seeing the unfolding of knowledge that is enhanced at the university,” he says.

Willian de Paula: he will continue his research internship project in his master's studies

Eduardo CesarWillian de Paula: he will continue his research internship project in his master’s studiesEduardo Cesar

Since 2012, the Ribeira Valley Community-Based Tourism Experiences Project, undertaken by the USP Institute of Psychology (IPUSP) together with technical schools in the municipalities of Iguape, Registro and Peruíbe, in the Ribeira Valley in southern São Paulo State, has focused on research into artistic and religious manifestations, leisure and social communication, and interaction with tourism in traditional communities in the region, such as fugitive slave communities (quilombos). The project’s major contribution to the lives of the 50 high school students involved is the possibility of interacting with researchers at the undergraduate, master’s, and post-doctorate levels who are also working on projects in the region. “This policy focuses on making public higher education more accessible to high school students, through educational and scientific processes,” explains Alessandro de Oliveira dos Santos, one of the IPUSP professors participating in the project.

Changing standards
In addition to state programs, a promising experiment is the Future Scientist Program (PFC), an initiative of the Sorocaba campus of the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar). Although linked to UFSCar, the project is independent and survives thanks to partnerships with companies such as Gerdau and Grupo Objetivo. Other universities are also involved, such as the University of Sorocaba (Uniso), Unesp’s Botucatu campus, the São Carlos Institute of Physics and the Sorocaba campus of the Pontifical Catholic University (PUC), which also host students. According to Fábio de Lima Leite, founder and coordinator of the program and professor in the UFSCar Sorocaba Department of Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics, of the 300 students who participated in the program, about 10% dropped out for various reasons, including involvement with drugs. “The state schools are in a precarious situation, we see kids going to school just for the free meal. Our mission is to show these young people that attending university is a viable goal.” Scholarships for high school students are provided by the CNPq, but for the other modules, involving middle school students (6th to 9th grade), the funds are supplied by sponsors. The middle school students work as part of networks of researchers and, when they enter high school, are “adopted” by the program and start research internships at the university, explains Ismail Barra Nova de Melo, another project coordinator.

The research internship programs for high school students could potentially change certain ingrained educational standards. “The model that dominates in the schools is based on the curriculum, which is relatively rigid and very focused on grades. This belief that the curriculum defines things is baseless,” says Dean Marco Antonio Zago. In his view, the most efficient system is one in which the class becomes a team, bringing together students and teachers for the purpose of solving fundamental questions, as happens in scientific research.

“The focus then shifts to the resolution of multiple problems related to life in society, with living beings,” explains Zago. In this model, therefore, work in groups, free meetings between students and teachers, and the freedom to take risks are factors that help define not just the result of a study, but also the class’s level of interest in studying. “Young people like to do everything together, like going to parties. Why can’t they learn the same way?” he concludes.