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The emotion of discovery

Research, Innovation and Diffusion Centers, such as the Science Station, are gaining resources and visitors

MIGUEL BOYAYANThe replica of Demoiselle, inside the Science Station: the challenge of reaching the young without any rapport with scientific themes MIGUEL BOYAYAN

The Science Station, the scientific and technological diffusion center linked to the University of São Paulo, should complete 2006 with a public of 450,000 visitors, a record for its 19 years of activity. During 2005 this contingency, which brings together visitors to expositions and also people attended to in other spheres, including access to its website, reached 400,000 people. In 2004 there were 220,000 visitors. The growing performance is the result of a conjunction of factors. The federal government, development agencies and foundations have amplified their investments in spaces for scientific diffusion such as the Science Station, whose area of 6,000 m2 houses expositions and playful and interactive experiments that cover themes linked to areas such as physics, biology, astronomy, mathematics, meteorology, urbanism and geology, among others. But the Center’s structure and reputation were vital for attracting such opportunities. “This is a favorable moment”, says the Science Station’s director, Wilson Teixeira, an full  professor at USP’s Geosciences Institute. “Scientific dissemination has been conquering more resources and we have been sought after by companies and institutions in order to carry out partnership projects. This attracts the attention of the media and makes the visiting public increase.”

The Science Station was created in 1987 by the CNPq in a large shed where a factory had functioned next to the metropolitan train station in the district of Lapa, in the city of São Paulo. In 1990 the space was incorporated into the University of São Paulo. With budgetary stability, the path towards the flowering of the idea was created. Today the Science Station has an annual budget of  R$ 750,000 for investing in infrastructure, costs and maintenance – which does not include the employees’ salaries and expenses such as light and water, which are also paid by USP. But it receives contributions of all sorts. Petrobras, for example, has invested R$ 980,000 in a new exhibition about the planet Earth and the environment, as well as supporting for a number of years the project of re-socialization named Clicar (Click), which takes children and adolescents in a street situation to experiments at the Center. Many of the temporary attractions are set up at no cost to the Station.

Last month, the program of Science and Technology Week included the exhibition of a replica of the aircraft Demoiselle, built in 1907 by Santos-Dumont and put together by the aviator Ruy de Azevedo Sodré Sobrinho. “As well we’ve been sought out by the astronaut Marcos Pontes, who offered himself to give a free lecture”, says Wilson Teixeira. The Vitae Foundation until recently destined monetary resources that allowed for a renovation of the space. Some three years ago the Science Station decided to charge an entry fee. “It was necessary to re-qualify the space and it worked out well. The public increased after we started charging an entry fee”, says Teixeira. The income flowing from ticket sales is reinvested in the infrastructure and in exhibitions. But, on one Saturday and one Sunday per month entrance is free. The Science Station has 32 employees and 115 trainees – university students who receive a grant to work as monitors.

The example and the performance of the Science Station are not isolated situations. During the decade of the 1990s dozens of scientific diffusion centers sprung up in the country, among them the Life Museum, of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro, and the Science Space, between the cities of Olinda and Recife in Pernambuco State. The Brazilian Association of Science Centers and Museums (ABCMC) has a register of more than one hundred institutions, in general small and founded less than fifteen years ago. The advent of the Science and Technology Week, created by the federal government, also provided evidence of a growing public involved through scientific divulging. In 2004, the first edition of the Week brought together 1,840 events. During the most recent edition, which took place last month and that had the centenary flight of 14-Bis as its theme, the number of events reached 9,000.

The issue that crops up is the impact that initiatives such as these have in awakening children and the young to science. The answer is not simple. “In comparison with the past we’ve advanced considerably. But the science museums still only hit a very small fraction of the public who need to be covered”, says Ernst Hamburger, a professor at USP’s Physics Institute, an ex-director of the Science Station and still a collaborator with the center’s activities. It is possible that the experience of visiting a worthwhile and interactive museum creates a reference point in the lives of young students and, eventually, even helps them to define their career – although no studies exist in the country that provide a dimension to this phenomenon. But the majority of those who attend these centers are students who have already demonstrated some interest in scientific questions.

The challenge, says Ernst Hamburger,  is to reach students who have not shown any interest for science, and for this to happen, the existence of a diffusion center on its own is not enough. The Science Station is looking to confront this question by going to schools. The project entitled, ABC in Scientific Education –  Hands On, coordinated by the Science Station in partnership with Brazilian Academy of Sciences, is looking to cover this hole through the training of teachers in the state and municipal teaching networks of  Sao Paulo and is reaching more than 500,000 and students.  On the 9th and 10th of October dozens of experiments linked to the program were presented in São Carlos (SP), from the observation of natural phenomena, such as the transformation of a tadpole into a frog and a caterpillar into a butterfly, to the building of prototypes of rockets using pieces of scrap. The PUC Science and Technology Museum in the city of Porto Alegre has provided another solution to this problem. It has set up mounted a traveling museum. This is a truck that goes from town to town taking with it 60 hands-on experimental kits. “We asked the children before and after they visited the museum what they wanted to be”, says Jeter Bertoletti, the museum’s director. “It’s gratifying to listen to the answers such as that from a young girl from the town of  Novo Hamburgo who, before entering said that she’d like to work in the shoe industry, just like her parents, and after coming out informed us that she had decided to become a teacher”, he says.