Neuroscience, theme parks and a Brazilian named Albert

Naomi Antony

Naomi Antony
Assistant news editor, SciDev.Net

According to Miguel Nicolelis, it is a common misconception that the Wright brothers invented controlled flight.

They may have invented the aeroplane, he says. But controlled flight? That was discovered by a Brazilian named Alberto Santos Dumont.

What has this got to do with science, technology and the poor? Everything, says Nicolelis, a Brazilian neuroscientist based at Duke University in the United States.

Santos Dumont was an unschooled coffee planter who simply wanted to fly – and through him, the aeronautics industry was born.

“Imagine how many Santos Dumonts there are, waiting to bring their ideas to fruition,” Nicolelis told an enthused audience. “Human talent is everywhere – it can be found in any corner of the world.”

“Brazil has lots of people and lots of creativity, but it has stayed near the bottom of the innovation curve for years – even though its science budget has doubled in the last 8 years. So what is going on?”

Miguel Nicolelis. Credit: Flickr/UnB Agencia

“We have the 3rd largest IT market in the world right now, but we don’t make the technology, we merely consume it. And it’s not for a lack of potential – look at Santos Dumont.”

It was this idea of hidden, untapped talent that inspired Nicolelis to build a neuroscience research institution, a hands-on science school for children and a women’s health centre in the Brazilian northeast, one of the country’s least developed regions.

At his sprawling site, known as the ‘Campus of the Brain’, the mandate is education for life.

A child’s education begins with their first ultrasound and the prenatal care of mothers. When the health centre first opened, 87 out of 100,000 mothers in the region were dying in childbirth. In 5 years this has fallen to 4 out of 100,000, and the centre now has 12,000 appointments a year.

At the school, there are no classrooms – only laboratories. Children learn about science by doing it; by “becoming a scientist”.

They trialled the school with 1,500 children from some of the most deprived areas in the region. Nicolelis showed us a picture of some of the recruits. All had grins a mile wide.

“You see that? They are smiling. These kids actually like to go to school – they arrive an hour before the school opens and sit there waiting to go in.”

“To them it is the best entertainment park they have ever had – and this is the education model we need for the 21st century. We need to educate people to think and to revolutionise the market place. And you only think if you enjoy what you are doing. Most scientists remain scientists [despite the] low pay because it is a lot of fun.”

Children learn astronomy, computer science, physics and robotics, as well as geography and history to encourage them to study their culture and appreciate their heritage.

Everything used in classroom experiments, except the most technical equipment, is built by the children. Nicolelis quipped that there are no longer any electrical fires in the communities because the children fix any bugs themselves.

The drop-out rate is just 2% – compared to the usual 56% before secondary school and 42% of the remainder before university – and many of the students are being accepted into the country’s best universities. Graduates students are catered for too, at the research institute, where top lecturers from around the world come to teach for two months at a time.

Nicolelis was so enthusiastic, so delightfully eccentric, and his talk so inspiring, that it was very easy to get swept away.

Thankfully, one member of the audience brought me back by pointing out the potential difficulties in scaling up a “21st century theme park” where the excitement lies in tangible, hands-on activities. Nicolelis said that they plan on creating virtual labs that simulate microscopes, telescopes and so on so that anywhere – even a bathroom or a garage – can become an environment of learning.

Not quite the same. Still, I know many people who wouldn’t mind being 12 again to have a chance at an educational experience that doesn’t involve rote learning.

This blog post is part of our 2012 Tech4Dev International Conference coverage. 

One Response to Neuroscience, theme parks and a Brazilian named Albert

  1. varistor says:

    This really sounds like a very good project, very nice to see that the drop-out rate is that low. The methodology of getting the kinds involved in the whole process seems very good.

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