Beyond Borders (Editor's Window)

31 Jan, 2008 By: Amy Stankiewicz

An innovative science and technology program taking place in Brazil might help us think about the U.S. education system innew ways.

The February 2008 issue of Scientific American outlines a remarkable initiative that's taking place in Brazil to empower citizens to become part of that country's growing prosperity. Less than 25 years after emerging from a military dictatorship, the country is in the process of implementing a nationwide education program designed to put even the most impoverished communities in touch with advancements in science and technology.

According to the article, the Brazilian Plan for the Development of Education (PDE) involves creating a network of world-class institutions that are dedicated to teaching science and technology to students nationwide while improving local infrastructure and, ultimately, the Brazilian economy. In partnership with the Brazilian government, the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience of Natal — a research institute founded by Brazilian scientists in 2003 — already has established the Natal Campus of the Brain, which is giving hundreds of children who are enrolled in one of the poorest school districts in Brazil access to cutting-edge science and technology resources.

I can only skim the surface of this amazing effort in the limited space I have here, but suffice it to say that the program has gotten me thinking about science and technology education in the United States. Of course, our economy and political history are quite different from Brazil's, but the goal of putting people who normally would never have the chance to experience the power of science in touch with world-class research and education is one that all countries should embrace.

In the United States, we continue to grapple with the issue of declining enrollment in both high school and college science and technology programs, as well as ever-smaller numbers of students graduating with engineering degrees. What can we do to change this? For starters, I can't help but think what might be accomplished were we to find new and creative ways to bring all the advancements and opportunities found within industry more directly in line with our education system.

In the U.S. CAD industry, many companies already have successfully implemented their respective technologies in high school and college curricula. Thus far, however, many efforts to bring industry-driven technology into the classroom have come from isolated instances of one company approaching one university program with offers of free software and accompanying training materials. Not all efforts have followed this practice, of course, but many have. What might happen if these same companies were to come together with the common goal of sparking more interest and opportunity in science and technology education nationwide? If you ask me, it's not too far-fetched to think that even companies that directly compete with one another could actually join forces on a grand scale to better educate this country's youth.

Of course, I haven't fleshed this idea out any more than to think about the potential that could come from industry taking a more active, collaborative role in education. I'm sure the possible ways to realize such a vision are endless. The program that's currently underway in Brazil should serve as an inspiration to those who, like me, are interested in advancing science and technology education in this country. Can we take any of the lessons learned in Brazil and apply them to our own challenges of preparing tomorrow's workforce? It's worth a thought.

About the Author: Amy Stankiewicz

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