Like most people, I just cringe at the idea of touching a spider, but last week I came to realize I must have missed out on a great opportunity, when I attended the First Latin American Summit of Science Educators organized in Costa Rica. The event, organized by Intel and the Inter-American Development Bank was an opportunity for 40 Latin-American educators and government officials responsible for science fairs and science and math curriculum to share best practices and challenges to promote the teaching of science.So, going back to the spiders, we all agreed that hands-on science projects, where kids can touch spiders, cultivate bacteria, or calculate the factors in the acceleration of a toy car, are essential to inspire passion for science and mathematics. And we all had a change to verify this at the Costa Rica National Science Fair, where we listened to hundreds of enthusiastic children, from kindergarten to high school, passionately tell us about their research projects. A group of 8 year old kids had set up a butterfly house and were studying the patterns of different predators and a 13 year old demonstrated to me how movement turns into heat with an ingenious machine she had built at home. But in order to engage more children in the region in these types of projects, experts at the summit agreed that teacher training is an essential ingredient. Teachers need to relearn, through project based approaches, how to teach science in a way that is meaningful and engaging for students. The IDB shared with participants a pilot project it is carrying out in Argentina to promote the teaching of science with great results. We learned about the Expedición Ciencia’s science camps for students and teachers .We examined Intel’s Students as Scientists Program to teach science through inquiry based learning and we all participated in a hands on workshop that involved water, soap and a lot of bubbles. We all agreed that this was much more fun that looking at a PowerPoint! We also had a chance to explore how technology can be a great ally to promote the learning of science and facilitate critical thinking and inquiry based learning. We participated in a workshop in which we racked our brains trying to program termites to build termite piles with Starlogo TNG, a programming language which allows students and teachers to understand how decentralized systems work. Getting the message across to the wider public on why science is important is a pending issue in Latin America. Because even when kids find science amazingly interesting when they participate in hands-on projects, not all of them understand how they could benefit from it or contribute to it. Gerardo Agresta, Director of Uruguay’s Science Programs, explained that Uruguay’s “secret weapon” during the last soccer world cup (where Uruguay came out #3) was not just its team and its players, but a soccer analysis software developed by a Uruguayan software company. Examples like these can inspire the next generation to take science more seriously! In the true spirit of the science fairs that they organize in their countries, the Summit´s participants had a chance to participate in a “Country Program Fair” where each country showcased the programs it had in place to promote science fairs and science education. All in all I learned a lot about the science fair programs across Latin America and feel confident for the future of science in the region, but I will be staying away from spiders.
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