WWU's Melissa Rice Spends a Week Teaching Space Science to Kids from Rio's 'City of God' Favela

by Alex Van Valkenburgh, WWU Office of Communications and Marketing Intern
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On the edge of Cidade de Deus, or City of God, one of Rio de Janeiro’s most infamous neighborhoods, Western assistant professor of Geology and Physics/Astronomy Melissa Rice spent a week this summer teaching young students about space exploration and the importance of science and education.

During the middle of one teaching session, automatic gunfire crackled through City of God, just a few blocks away. This isn’t like any classroom at Western.

Cidade de Deus was made famous by the book and the award winning movie of the same name. The favela is a hotspot for drug trafficking and violence in Rio, and the atmosphere can leave the tens of thousands of residents with few opportunities. During Rice’s time in Rio, she caught glimpses of how the students from the neighborhood live on a regular basis.

“Sometimes it feels like a war zone,” Rice said. “There was a day the military moved to crack down on the neighborhood’s drug lords. Several of the students couldn’t get to the school until midway through the day because there was shooting in the streets.”

Rice worked with Ad Astra Academy, which partnered with a local Rio school, Instituto Presbiteriano Álvaro Reis (INPAR). The Ad Astra Academy is a group of American and Brazilian academics that bring science education to low-income neighborhoods in the United States, Bangladesh and Brazil. The organization is funded primarily by grants and donations. This year, the Ad Astra team and INPAR worked together to create a safe and exploratory learning environment for the students, who were ages 11 to 16.

“I saw a real value in having scientists come and interact with the kids,” Rice said. “They really felt they were getting something special, and that they were getting a glimpse into a world they thought only existed in the movies.”

The team engaged with the students through hands-on scientific experiments, engineering activities such as building model Mars rovers, a field trip to a picturesque island off Rio’s coast, and a Skype call with scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

“I think if you asked them all today what their favorite part of the program was, 90 percent would say the boat trip,” Rice said. “A lot of these kids have never been outside of their neighborhood.”

On the island, the students were able to experience scientific work in the field. They had a chance to operate a submersible drone, explore the ecology of the forest and examine exposed tide pools. After completing their work, the kids got a chance to play soccer and swim in the ocean in a safe environment, something that they don’t get to experience often back in their neighborhood.

Back in the classroom, the students designed a potential traverse path for the Mars rover Curiosity and presented it to NASA scientists and engineers who work on the Curiosity mission.

“The students were blown away to be having a conversation, live in real-time, with scientists at NASA,” Rice said. “Seeing their plans being taken seriously by the Curiosity rover team members is something that some of them said will stick with them the rest of their lives. Even though we told the kids on the first day that they would create this plan and present it to NASA, several kids didn’t believe it was actually going to happen.”

The goal of the program was to spark an interest in continuing the students’ education. It can be difficult for someone who grew up in a favela to break through the economic barriers that limit their career choices. But it all starts with school.

In Brazil, it isn’t the tuition cost that prevents students from going to university, which is free; what prevents some students from attending are the extraordinarily competitive entrance exams. Upper and middle-class students can afford to pay for tutoring and classes, but for kids growing up in more impoverished neighborhoods, it isn’t that easy, according to Rice.

“For kids growing up without means, that’s an insurmountable burden to be paying for classes for university entrance exams,” she said. But many students have never even considered higher education.

 “The question is can they afford not to be working and supporting their family in order to invest in their future? A lot of kids facing that choice decide that it makes more sense to start making money immediately,” she said. “Drop out of high school, get a minimum-wage job and do something to support their family.”

The program gave Rice hope in creating further opportunities for students in need. Space exploration can hook students on science and enrich an interest in education as a whole.

“I came out of the experience feeling like we need to be grateful every day for the tremendous opportunities that all of us at Western Washington University have, and we need to do what we can to create opportunities for more kids,” Rice said. “It was an amazing trip.”

For more information on Ad Astra Academy visit http://www.adastra.world/. To see videos of the program and Rice’s work with the students, visit https://vimeo.com/199495230 or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5uCDpXpBOc

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Friday, August 10, 2018 - 10:39am