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Posted - 08/31/2012
The Latest Dirt on Science House Foundation by Joshua Fouts

From Kronos to Kairos:  Invoking The Pause - Acre, Brazilthe_team.jpg

"Lots of things have changed since I was a child," Erishi a 15-year-old pregnant daughter of one of the Ashaninka leaders told us in Portuguese when we asked her if she had noticed any changes in the climate in her area.  "When I was a child I never used to get sunburned.  Now I do.   I used to be able to dive into the river, now it's too shallow..."  Erishi, who has a quiet, thoughtful, demeanor, with wise eyes, rosy cheeks and a kind smile calmly described the changes to the climate she has seen in her corner of the Amazon jungle where her community subsists entirely off resources they grow, hunt and fish in the jungle.  I was amazed that she could recall such dramatic changes at her young age. 

Late this spring, thanks to an amazing Invoking the Pause grant opportunity, 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 western most state of Acre on a trip to deliver microscopes to a group of indigenous people called the Ashaninka and determine how Climate Change was affecting this far-flung corner of the Amazon.  Already, I could tell that the journey would be equal parts brutal and inspiring.

boat.jpgSitting in the skiff after five days journey by plane, 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. The wife of one of the tribal leaders took over the helm of the boat, steering us with the casual ease of an off-duty Gondolier as we drifted for a few hours until our engine was replaced.

As dusk set in on the river, the water's surface came alive with insects that coated the lenses my eyeglasses like headlamps on an old VW driving through a back country summer road.  The thick tapestry of insects was punctuated by flashes of grey and white as bats and birds pirouetted through the air like ballerinas breaking their fast.

Our two-fold mission: To bring microscopes to the Ashaninka tribe and tell the story of the impact of climate change on them.  It 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.

Benki describes how Benkiclimate change has affected the region.

We arrived just as Benke Piyãko, the Ashaninka tribal leader was planning to leave for the village. He greeted us politely and told us that he unfortunately had to leave. Just as the words left his mouth a massive tropical downpour opened on the cultural center forcing us all to seek cover under one of the many thatched-roof, raised floor abodes in the area.

Three hours later when the rain finally abated we had been invited to the Ashaninka village Apiwtxa by Benki. Benki, we would later learn, had been immortalized in the song "Benke" by popular Brazilian singer/songwriter Milton Nascimento. Our objective was now to introduce microscopy skills to both the elders and children of the tribe, and 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. hut.jpg

We arrived at the village after dark and scaled a muddy slope to the village. The Ashaninka prefer to stay somewhat anonymous and do not build formal entryways to their village. With no lights, we formed a human chain that pulled us all up the slope, each of us was covered in mud by the time we hung our hammocks in what would be our homes for a week.

The next day we began our work. Dr. Ana Carolina Zeri, a biochemist 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. Dr._Ana_arolina_Zeri.png

As I contemplated the scope and significance of what we were doing, I decided that we needed a more encompassing name for the potential scale of what we were attempting. I decided to call this outpost one what I hope will be many Points of Science.

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," model is grounded on Science House Foundation's successful programs already in place, including the MicroGlobalScope program, which provides complete microscopy kits to science teachers around the world who work with 10-12 year olds. 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. Ana Carolina 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, a biochemist and physicist 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 has since made Ana the lead on a major institutional educational outreach 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? How about Facebook?

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.


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. 

You can read, listen to and view our journal of the quest here.

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.