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The museum goes to school

USP project takes a biology and physics exhibition to students in the public school network

Eduardo CesarStudents at the exhibition: the aim is to motivate them to ask questions in the classroomEduardo Cesar

Students from the public school network in the metropolitan regions of São Paulo and São Carlos are getting to know a type of science museum on a reduced scale without ever leaving the school environment. Launched in 2008, the traveling exhibition USP comes to your school has already visited dozens of state high schools, spreading biology and physics concepts and using entertaining installations and interactive panels. This is a joint initiative of two Cepids (Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers) funded by FAPESP: the Human Genome Studies’ Center (CEGH), of the Biosciences Institute of the University of São Paulo (USP), and the Research Group in Optics and Photonics (Cepof), of the São Carlos Physics Institute (IFSC) of USP. “In some cases the exhibition is providing students with their first opportunity to see something similar to a science museum,” says Vanderlei Bagnato, a professor at the IFSC and coordinator of Cepof. “The intention is to help students reflect and to motivate them to ask the teacher questions, thus improving the teaching of science,” says Eliana Dessen, a professor at USP and a CEGH researcher.

The exhibition comprises two sets of objects. The biology section has a series of five lit panels (From the organism to the genome), a video (Exploring the molecular nature of human beings), three interactive panels (Organization of the eukaryotic cell and the functions of the main organelles; Obtaining embryonic stem cells and stem cells from adults, and The use of stem cells in therapy), an interactive book (Book of the human body: main systems) and a microscopy section (Discovering structures invisible to the naked eye). In the physics section the objects on show deal with optical concepts and phenomena. It also uses interactive panels (Optical illusion and The fluorescence and phosphorescence of materials), three holograms and an image that, seen with special glasses, becomes three-dimensional.

Since last year, the installations have been spending the first semester in São Carlos and the second in São Paulo. In general, the exhibition is set up in each school for two days and two nights, but it may stay up to a week if the school is very big. The idea is to reach at least the students in the second and third years of high school, although pupils from other grades can also take part. The biology and physics teachers from the schools visited do an eight-hour training course, in which they learn about the material and have the chance to ask questions about the content. They are also supplied with teaching material produced by researchers from USP, containing theoretical information and suggestions on how to deal with the topics in the classroom. Monitors recruited from among university students (in the case of São Paulo) or from students from the schools visited (in São Carlos) arouse the curiosity of the pupils, but whenever possible they suggest that doubts be raised with the teachers, in order to enhance the impact of the exhibition in the classroom.

The reaction has been positive, according to a survey carried out with 1,289 students and 11 teachers from the public schools in São Paulo that hosted the exhibition in 2008. The most favorable evaluations came from female students from a lower socio-economic level. Of all the students interviewed, 84.5% had the feeling they had learned something from the event. The difference between “liking” and “thinking that they learned something” from each of the biology sections was significant among the schools that were visited and is linked to the time when the students study. Students who study at night tend to “like” rather than “think that they learned something.” The exhibition also drove subsequent learning, because 89% chose words such as “wish to know more,” “curiosity” and “interest” to describe their feelings about the exhibition. “The results lead to the conclusion that the option of taking exhibitions to schools, in addition to providing a moment of pleasure, is an efficient way of stimulating pupils’ interest in learning,” says Eliana Dessen. The students plied their teachers with specific questions about the exhibition in the classroom. Of the 11 teachers who replied to the questionnaire, 10 said that after the visit the pupils commented spontaneously on the exhibition during lessons. Nine teachers stated that the pupils asked specific questions about what was on display, while two indicated that students only asked questions when they were encouraged to do so.

In São Carlos, the reaction could be measured in another way. “After seeing the exhibition, some students came to us to find out what they need to do to get into USP,” says Vanderlei Bagnato. “The idea of the exhibition is not just to encourage careers in science, but to stimulate logical thinking and help schools dispel their students’ scientific ignorance. However, it will also be productive if it reinforces students’ self-esteem and shows that it is within their reach to get into the state’s public universities,” he says.

Set up in 2000, FAPESP’s 11 Cepids are multidisciplinary centers that carry out research in areas that are at the forefront of knowledge. The groups focus on various themes, from identifying the genes expressed in diseases to the development of new diagnoses for formulating drugs that are more effective, the analysis of protein structures, new ceramic materials and even the violence that affects the São Paulo Metropolitan Region, among others. Besides engaging in cutting-edge research, the Cepids’ researchers are responsible for disclosing the knowledge they produce, sharing it with society. The USP goes to your school exhibition is part of this effort at dissemination. “If there’s one thing that the Cepids can do jointly it is to disclose knowledge, making it more wide ranging and more effective,” says Vanderlei Bagnato.