Neuroscience, theme parks and a Brazilian named Albert

May 30, 2012

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. 

Science centres and museums at PCST 2012

April 20, 2012

Luisa Massarani

Luisa Massarani
Latin America regional coordinator, SciDev.Net

Marzia Mazzonetto, Ecsite Project Coordinator and my good friend after years of working together in science communication, heard that I was writing a blog on PCST 2012 and got “jealous” — in the good sense, of course. She has attended several sessions on science centres and museums during the conference and has written a post for us. Cool, isn’t it? Here it is:

Science centres and museums all over the world are one of the places where public communication of science and technology is put into practice. They were also the focus of some of the several presentations that have been given during the two intense days of the PCST conference.

Different issues have been raised by the experts from the field, showing that science centres and museums face similar challenges and innovation needs as the rest of the wide science communication community.

One of the questions that was asked and discussed during these sessions was how science centres are and should be forums for communicating controversial scientific issues.

Underwear in a 2010 exhibition at the State History Museum in Moscow, Russia

Catherine Franche, director of Ecsite, the European Network of Science Centres and Museums, mentioned a controversial list recently published in the US about objects that should never be shown in museums, which even included such items as underwear or images of naked human bodies.

How can be science explained in museums without being able to show some of the basic elements of biology and the world around us?

Sharon Ament, director of public engagement at the Natural History Museum in London, United Kingdom, presented some interesting examples of how her museum managed recently to use objects from its own collections to present an exhibition and associated activities on controversial topics such as slavery, evolution and sex.

Homo Habilis skull from a 2009 exhibition at London's Natural History Museum

The environment was a key theme of several presentations.  It’s not just journalists who face the pressure of reporting on environmental issues; museum experts and researchers also fear a lack of real connection between what is being shown and told and the critical issues with which to engage the public.

A interesting presentation on the topic was given by Joëlle Le Marec, from the Université Paris Diderot in France, during a highly multicultural session entitled “On the meaning of participation and democracy in different cultural and social contexts”.

Joëlle talked about how the theme of the environment “entered” science museums in France. She said that while in the 1970s and 80s environmental issues were presented as elements of reflection between inhabitants and their own territories, nowadays the environment is presented as a scientific object, more closely related to progress and international development and events rather than something connected to local issues.

Butterfly from Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil

Is this new narrative of environment in science centres contributing to making people feel like environmental issues are something very far away from them?

Several other sessions at PCST 2012 have offered interesting experiences and studies coming from activities in science museums on topics such as evolution, genetically modified organisms and climate change. One more session worth mentioning was “Science and governance in a knowledge society: Research and best practices on the role of science centres and museums”.

Organising activities and exhibitions in a museum means a lot of work but it’s also fun, interesting and sometimes very difficult and challenging. Paola Rodari, project manager at Sissa Medialab in Trieste, Italy — and an expert in museum studies — said something that museums should never stop doing is evaluation; reflecting and possibly researching the effectiveness of the exhibitions and activities that they offer.

Museums are places where people can get together to discuss, dialogue and share opinions on science issues, but also contribute directly to the museum’s growth by sharing their hopes and expectations. They are also places where, in some instances, visitors can interact directly with scientists who have labs and run research directly inside the museum complex (as is the case with the Nature Live Labs at the Natural History Museum in London).

A young visitor to the Houston Museum of Natural Science in the United States

How to evaluate and learn more about how these activities and issues are pushing science centres and museums to evolve, and how they are directly influencing science research and science policy is food for thought for future PCST conferences for sure!

This blog post is part of our Public Communication of Science & Technology (PCST2012) conference coverage.

Final day of Forum urges ‘creative wealth’ and e-learning strategies

April 3, 2012


Maina Waruru
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net

African countries are being asked to use science, technology and innovation to create different, more inclusive forms of wealth that benefit entire societies and are more sustainable.

Under-development on the continent can be addressed by reduced reliance on inherited forms of wealth such as oil and minerals, and by shifting to “created” wealth through the application of science, technology and innovation, the Africa ST&I forum heard on its final day today.

“Science and innovation will create not only sustainable but equitable wealth for all in Africa,” said Donald Kaberuka, head of the African Development Bank (ADB) at the ministerial session of the forum.

“Created wealth has the potential to accelerate development and reduce inequality, as opposed to inherited wealth which fuels inequalities and at times sparks conflict in Africa,” he added.

Kaberuka said the bank has identified and is funding ST&I initiatives aimed at spurring economic development on the continent, alongside its investments in other sectors such as water, energy and infrastructure development.

He advised universities in Africa to place greater emphasis on e-learning education approaches, to help bridge the gaps resulting from a continent-wide shortage of qualified lecturers and the high number of university students.

“It would make a lot a sense to use e-learning in universities instead of having one lecturer teaching 1,000 students, resulting in poorly qualified graduates,” Kaberuka said.

By 2030, Africa stands to benefit from “demographic dividends”, as it is estimated a quarter of the world’s youth population will be Africans – but the opportunity to take advantage of this workforce will be lost if they don’t receive the education and skills training necessary to innovate and become entrepreneurs.

The ADB boss noted that some Asian counties have effectively utilised their large youth populations, with deliberate strategies to provide skills training and jobs, and said African countries need to perform the same task.

UNESCO director Irina Bokova told the meeting that UNESCO is helping African countries draft and reform their STI policies to align them with demands of current times, with a particular focus on grants and rewards for innovations for young scientists and women.

Educational soap operas over the phone

December 18, 2011


This blog article has been produced for Eye on Earth Summit 2011 by SciDev.Net Conference Service, which maintains all editorial independence.

How a small communication gadget called the mobile phone can transform the way we do things and change our lifestyles continues to amaze. So many things have already been done with it but new innovations make its uses appear inexhaustible.

One example is an interactive audio soap opera aimed at teaching households how to separate waste, which is now being piloted in Kenya. The programme listened to using ordinary phones (no need for the hightech smart ones) was one of the fascinating ideas presented during the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi.

By dialing a tollfree number, you can listen to and experience the consequences of people’s own decisions regarding waste disposal. The service is based on a GSM network connection and does not require data transmission.

Simple text content and quizzes give background knowledge to the interactive stories of people throughout the community. They are also used for communicating and exchanging opportunities, according to Morton Saulo, communications officer for the National Environment Management Authority, Kenya, which is championing the project.

The whole concept is that changing attitudes requires education, and that is what the project aims to achieve. From household projects, it will move onto targeting larger groups. The hardest part will be getting policymakers at the national level involved, which would help to make effective decisions on waste management. And this way, this tiny gadget can really prove its worth.

Ochieng’ Ogodo

The Toymaker at TWAS

October 20, 2010

Arvind Gupta with his toys (

“I am a toymaker,” Arvind Gupta cheerfully introduces himself. Gupta, one of India’s leading science popularisers, is being modest. This ex-alumni of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, in fact, received a TWAS-ROCASA (Regional Office for Central and South Asia) regional prize on the opening day (18 October) of the TWAS annual meeting. Gupta, a former electrical engineer, has been making toys for the past 25 years and his students science centre  operates from the campus of the Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune.

Gupta’s passion is toys, more so toys made from trash. He believes the best thing a child can do with a toy is to break it (“children are the last curious cats we have,” he says). In fact, I would urge you to check out his toys website:

So what have toys got to do with a meeting of serious and senior scientists? For one, Gupta’s passion for science popularisation is winning accolades both nationally and now internationally. As he told me over dinner last night, there are thousands of bright, inquisitive young minds in developing countries, for whom poverty is the major barrier to a decent education. Their poverty keeps them out of the exciting pursuit of their scientific curiosity and learning as they cannot afford fancy science books or have access to nice school laboratories the urban elite’s children enjoy.

This is where Gupta steps in. His technique of using toys to explain science covers topics from astronomy to beginner’s biology, pressure, light, electricity, magnetism, even ‘Newton Unplugged’ and many more.

Gupta is also a staunch believer in ‘copy left’ philosophy (in which authors forgo copyrights and make their work freely accessible to all.) His website hosts a collection of 2500 science books — his and those that he simply buys and puts up on his website. They have been translated into 13 Indian languages so that poor students in remote areas with no access to well equipped public libraries can read them. As he explains to the original authors, what matters is that their books are being read by hundreds of thousands of poor children with an interest in science. And they end up agreeing with him!!

May Gupta’s tribe increase.

T V Padma, South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net

Education, education, education

March 28, 2010

Gebisa Ejeta (credit: GCARD)

The lack of external agencies investing in higher education in Africa poses a “real danger to the continent”. So said Gebisa Ejeta, World Food Prize winner and Purdue University professor, at a morning session at GCARD today.

He called for a resurgence of donor interest in higher education.

“One thing that could derail past gains [in agricultural research for development] in Africa is the declining human capacity base on the continent.”

Higher education is fundamental to improving all aspects of agricultural research for development, he said.

African governments seem aware of this. Governments are busy putting up buildings and students are filling them in large numbers – but the quality of education they’re receiving is weak, said Ejeta.

His call for a refocus on higher education was seconded by Adnan Badram, former prime minister of Jordan, who emphasised the need for “targeted education that can solve national problems”.

Nina Federoff, science and technology advisor to the US Secretary of State, also agreed. “Just 30 years ago, USAID educated some 20,000 students—today it’s less than 1,000. That has to be reversed,” she said.

The plea to donors to invest in higher education is hardly new. More than one year ago, we published a spotlight examining this very issue (see Aid for higher education). But the more calls for donor support — particularly from key players such as Ejeta and Federoff — the better.

Sian Lewis
Commisioning editor, SciDev.Net

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