Joshua Fouts is an anthropologist, photographer and writer whose work chronicles the cultural intersections of science, technology and art. He is the creator of “Points of Science,” a global initiative to make science education accessible to all, and executive director of Science House Foundation, an international New York City-based NGO that seeks to spark the imaginations of kids worldwide to the excitement of science and cultural collaboration. You can follow Joshua on Twitter @josholalia.
Late this May I found myself sitting on a corrugated metal bench in an aluminum skiff, traveling up the river Amônia in the middle of the Amazon forest. I was in Brazil’s state of Acre on a trip to deliver microscopes to a group of indigenous people called the Ashaninka. Already, I could tell that the journey would be equal parts brutal and inspiring.
Sitting in the skiff, my discomfort at having a pressed-tin pattern imprinted onto my thighs and backside was nearly forgotten with the arrival of ice-cold tropical downpours, which completely soaked through the mosquito-repellent clothing (though the insects still managed to leave welts the size of plums). Later, I’d have time to focus on other things– like how shallow river water has lowered nearly 20 meters in the past decade, causing skiffs that once passed easily before climate change altered the landscape to now regularly run aground on massive fallen trees or sand bars hiding just beneath the surface. But for now I focused on the shore. The boat engine died, and we paddled by hand until we washed up on a sandbar where bamboo poles from the forest became improvised oars.
Our mission to bring microscopes to the Ashaninka tribe was imbued with greater urgency when we learned that the precipitously low water levels under our boat are driving the local fish population into steep decline. The tribe needed tools they could use to understand and hopefully mitigate the changes within their environment.
We had been invited to the Ashaninka village Apiwtxa by Benki Piyãko, their tribal leader. Our objective was to introduce microscopy skills to both the elders and children of the tribe, creating a new Points of Science outpost in Brazil. A new venue for introducing practical science education and science skills to a community in order to both spark the imaginations of their children to study science, and empower the adults with skills to use science to better understand and defend their environment while learning to transform along with the changing times.
Dr. Ana Carolina Zeri, a biochemist and physicist from LNBio, Brazil’s National Biosciences Laboratory based in Campinas in the State of São Paulo, led the microscopy lessons. She taught the elders how they could use microscopes to monitor the contents of the river water and determine, hopefully before the fish disappear completely, the relative population of the microscopic foodstuffs they eat so that they can call attention to authorities for assistance. We left the microscopes at the village after a series of spirited sessions gazing through the viewfinder with children who had never seen their own faces before we showed them the digital pictures we took on the spot.
Points of Science
Points of Science is a global Science House Foundation initiative designed to open the eyes of kids to science throughout the world with the idea that some of them might become globally collaborative scientists.
The first pilot program, “Pontos de Ciência: Brasil,” is a collaborative project between Science House Foundation and Laboratorio Nacional de BioCiências (LNBio). The model is grounded on our successful programs already in place, including Science House Foundation’s MicroGlobalScope program, which provides complete microscopy kits to science teachers around the world who work with 10-12 year olds. These teachers are then connected via a cross-culturally collaborative global network of schools and scientists that participate in Science House Foundation’s programs. Students learn that science is exciting and collaborative, with the power to transform their lives.
The concept for Pontos de Ciência: Brasil draws inspiration from the Pontos de Cultura movement created by Brazil’s former Minister of Culture, Gilberto Gil, in which digital art and music centers were created throughout the country to allow children from all communities to be part of the global digital culture.
The Pontos de Ciência: Brasil idea, first came to me after being invited by Dr. Zeri to speak at LNBio in October 2011. Science House Foundation, which I direct, had just awarded two MicroGlobalScope grants, one to LNBio and one to a local NGO called Anhumas/QueroQuero that provides education and enrichment to the children of a local favela. Ana, who runs an open laboratory at LNBio, proposed that we introduce a science education curriculum to the programs of Anhumas/QueroQuero. She facilitated a relationship with the NGO and convinced LNBio’s director Dr. Kleber Franchini to let her volunteer and teach there once a week. Dr. Franchini has recently assigned her to lead this and related efforts as a major part of LNBio’s institutional education program.
The kids’ enthusiasm for the project was quickly evident as they scoured the area for bugs and quickly ran out of petri dishes. Within a few short weeks, Ana’s work sparked the kids’ interest in science and even served as a catalyst for literacy, due to the kids’ desire to share their scientific discoveries and describe, on Science House Foundation’s MicroGlobalScope website, the stories of their findings.
Innovation as Cultural DNA
Why Brazil? I believe that Brazil, unlike any other country on the planet today, has innovation and creativity at the core of its Cultural DNA. I have had a lifelong relationship with Brazil. At the age of 16 I first arrived in the capital Brasília as an exchange student during the throes of the country’s Diretas Já movement, in which I witnessed firsthand the successful transition from dictatorship to democracy. Today, I have watched Brazil transform into one of the most powerful creative cultures on the planet. If you have any doubts about the uniquely innovative nature of Brazil’s rich culture of science and technology, you need look no further than Instagram, a photo-sharing app co-created by a Brazilian and recently purchased by Facebook for US$1 billion; or the Synchrotron, Brazil’s particle accelerator, which occupies the same campus as LNBio and was until recently the only particle accelerator in the Southern Hemisphere; or the roots of what has now contributed to Brazil’s unprecedented level of Energy independence from Middle Eastern oil — their effort in the 1970s to make all vehicles run on Ethanol. For the past decade Brazil as a culture has quietly dominated the world of social media. Any guess as to what the second largest population is on Twitter? And this list goes on.
My dream is that by collaborating with Brazil’s inherently creative, scientifically curious and innovative culture, we can create a template that could be applied to the rest of the world. It is no secret that the US educational system is in crisis. I work with science teachers in the US public school system whose science equipment amounts to nothing more than a wash basin. The world can do better. Perhaps it is time we look to other countries for leadership and a new beginning.