This week we’re welcoming Roberta Manaa as a guest poster. Roberta has worked to connect the Brazilian public to cultural projects combining theater, cinema, and art with science since 2001. She is also a science fiction fan and has loved astronomy since childhood.
On a cold night in the pampas south of Brazil, I was outdoors, huddled in a blanket with a group of strangers and a shared passion: the universe and its secrets. We were waiting for space debris that would enter Earth’s atmosphere and burn, emitting light. The phenomenon is quite simple, but it creates a splendid spectacle. While we waited for the ignition of the cosmic dust we could also see moons, planets and clusters on the astronomer’s telescopes. That was two years ago. Back then, my passion for astronomy and science was reignited by that meteor shower, while I was experiencing it. Which raises a question: how important is it to live science?
Living science – programs that offer science as an experience
A number of Brazilian institutions offer science experiences for the public. The Federal University’s physics department in South Brazil offers stargazing activities, such as the one I described above, so people can have a hands-on opportunity to experience science. In these events, professors and students are available to offer explanation on subjects such as how stars are born. I even witnessed a heated discussion between two students about the destiny of our sun when it runs out of fuel. They ended up taking the case to the referee: their professor.
In Brazil, I recently moved to the nation’s Carnival headquarters, Rio de Janeiro, a city that houses two institutions dedicated to space: the Museum of Astronomy and Sciences and the Planetarium Foundation. The former focuses on promoting academic studies, lectures, courses, seminars, and publications, and welcomes schools for visits. It offers sky observation programs on Saturday evenings, when the public may see the sky with a centennial lunette (a historical instrument used to look to the stars) as well as with modern equipment. In addition, the institution promotes “cooking with chemistry” and “museum goes to the beach“, activities to explain the science in our everyday lives.
The Planetarium offers movie sessions for students, as well as science experiments for the public. The visitors can perform experiments that demonstrate how sunlight hits earth, explain the seasons, or show the composition of galaxies. On occasion, the telescopes are brought to low income communities.
Using cultural events to promote science
I’ve followed my mother’s footsteps to become a cultural producer: someone who is at the backstage of cultural projects and makes them possible. In this context, I work to create opportunities to expose people to art and science, as well as make them moved by what they have experienced.
In her book Not For Profit – Why Democracy Needs Humanities, Martha Nussbaum states that even scientific minds benefit from exerting creativity. Theater can do that: it boosts confidence and creates a sense of collectivity. Developing a character’s background exercises creativity, and adapting a story for the stage brings in a fresh perspective.
In one of my cultural projects, I collaborate with Rio de Janeiro’s Jedi Council, a gathering of Star Wars fans. We plan activities inside the Planetarium to hook sci-fi fans into the world of science by offering movies, debates with scientists, storytelling activities using puppets and costumes, and administering theater and costuming workshops. We also collaborate with Nova Chance, a volunteer-based Institute that serves the low-income neighborhood of Mangueira.
Exposing kids and teens to new adventures might ignite the same curiosity I experienced as a child listening to my father’s star stories. As Sci-Ed contributor Cristina Russo wrote earlier, “museum visitors don’t always visit the museum with the intention to learn, but mostly with the intention of leisure or entertainment. Learning is seen as secondary, an added perk.” To create opportunities for the public to stumble upon knowledge through informal education is our purpose, considering “there’s less pressure to learn in these informal environments, so they can actually be fun.“
How about showing kids that being a scientist might be much cooler than being a soccer player or a funk singer? Will.I.am has been doing that with his foundation, as well as helping with scholarships students who want to go to college. A similar approach is being taken by Dr. Emdin, a professor of science at NYC, and the rapper GZA. Both met at a radio program hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. To tackle the problem that only 4% of African-American high school seniors are proficient in science in comparison to 27% of white seniors, they use hip-hop rhymes to teach the principles of physics. Neil deGrasse Tyson tells us in Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier:
“whenever we hold an event at the Hayden Planetarium that includes an astronaut… there’s a significant uptick in attendance. [...] The one-on-one encounter makes a difference in the hearts and minds of Earth’s armchair space travelers [...]. My reading of history and culture tells me that people need their heroes.”
Cristina Russo discussed this “astronaut effect” in a recent post on space education.
Limitations of funding
The Perseid meteor shower was an impressive astronomical event that was visible in the southern hemisphere, from Saturday the 11th to Monday the 13th in August of 2012. It was another opportunity to expose the public to the beauties of the universe: stargazing during the phenomenal passage of that beautiful stream of debris. However, that incredible spectacle of nature was unable to change an institution’s pre-determined schedule: observations at the Planetarium take place only on Wednesdays. Given limitations such as this, can we keep the interest in science alive?
Unfortunately, a lack of funds for science, culture, and education is commonplace in public Brazilian institutions. A widespread problem we face in Brazil is a lack of interest from the government in science and culture that results in an unqualified workforce; some parallels can be made to the US, especially in times of sequestration. This is the consequence of decades of deficient investment in education and the lack of a long-term project for scientific development. To illustrate the point, in 2011 Brazil’s president removed the country’s support for the European Extremely Large Telescope, stopping its construction and therefore ending Brazilian scientists’ chances to participate in the observations. Fortunately Brazilian Congress has reopened the discussion on this issue.
I am lucky to have had a father who made me curious about the world I live in and about the other worlds. Growing up, he taught me about the rain, sky, thunder, moon and stars. He told me that the deeper we look into the sky, the farther we look into the universe’s past. He told me a star that we see now may have already turned into a supernova. Other children are not so lucky to have that deep scientific curiosity in their families.
How can we, as a society, help fill that role? By working alongside the Planetarium Foundation and the Jedi Council, I try to fill that gap by promoting culture and education. If kids do not have a background that inspires and enables them to build scientific knowledge, then it is our job to offer them the tools to grow that interest.