This post is part of a series of interviews with international educators, policy makers, and leaders titled “One Good Question.” These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.
Marcelo Knobel is Director of the Brazilian National Nanotechnology Laboratory (LNNano), of the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (University of Campinas, UNICAMP). From 2002 to 2006 he coordinated de Núcleo de Desenvolvimento da Criatividade (Creativity Development Center, NUDECRI), of UNICAMP and from 2006 to 2008 he was the Executive Director of the Science Museum, also at UNICAMP. He was the Vice-President for Undergraduate Programs from 2009 to 2013. He was a 2007 Eisenhower Fellow to the US taking a deeper look at scientific culture and the popularization of science via science museums.
In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?
Sometimes there is an investment but the priorities are completely wrong. In Brazil we have significant investments— the government pays for K-12 and university education for all students — , but the priorities are not leading us to strong education outcomes. Our system and needs are really complex, but there are two existing investments that could be better leveraged for change : value of the teacher as professional and scalability of non-governmental education organizations. Our teachers are underpaid and not well-prepared for the work, and society provides no incentive to be a professor, or positive value of the profession. To change that, for the next generation, it’s necessary to have a really smart and fast plan to change this situation. This is where scalability of non-governmental organizations matters. There are philanthropic and social investment efforts here, but they aren’t as well developed as in the US. It’s difficult to keep an ONG runnning. There are a few ONGs run by the civil society or wealthy families, but their impact is very small in comparison to the need. Fundaçao Lemann is making some interesting programs, but the number of people that these programs can impact is small. Brazil should have 1,000 organizations like this, but we maybe have only 10. Scaling the impact of our ONGs would reach a much broader population than we can do currently.
In your upcoming book, you posit that Brazilian higher education would benefit from offering general Liberal Arts Colleges among existing post-secondary institutions. What void will Liberal Arts Colleges fill and how will they transform access and success for the greater population?
My main concern is to advocate for the cause of General Education in university. In Brazil 43% of the population completes high school, but only 12% has a post-secondary degree, so we’re already dealing with an elite population. The benefits for these elite is very clear—better salaries, better jobs. In our university system, we currently have no general education or liberal arts course requirements. When a student tests to enter university, they are only applying to a specific career strand : medicine, education, chemistry, accounting, etc. It may seem like a minor detail but it’s not. Some careers are extremely difficult to access. At UNICAMP for example, less than 1% of applicants are accepted into the medical program. If you are accepted and after one month you don’t like this course of study, you have to drop-out of university and start all over for the next year. A general studies or liberal arts base would allow students to experiment and learn more about specific industries before making a commitment to one of them.
In the real world when companies hire engineers, they provide a 6 months training period for the specific content in that position. The ideal candidates are excellent learners and problem-solvers first, then content experts. Ususally companies prefer to hire people who can think outside of the box and have certain soft skills that we don’t learn here in Brazil at all. General education has been in place in the US for years. In the global market, companies and countries like China, Singapore, and Hong Kong are in search of more well-rounded professionals who can deal with problems and learn how to solve them across multiple disciplines. If you’re learning only content in university, within 10 years your content may be outdated.
ProFIS created at UNICAMP is a hybrid of my general education vision. This is a pilot that I would like to see the entire university adopt. We recruit the best students from the local public high school, who wouldn’t normally attend university. On average 80% of students are living in poverty and 90% are first generation in the university. We’re automatically increasing social inclusion by making a space for these students in university.
Even when these students are the best in their schools, they still have strong gaps in their basic education. ProFIS anticipates and supports academic and socio-economic gaps with an army of staff and resources: the best professors in university volunteer to teach in ProFIS, Teaching Assistants provide extra tutoring, Social Workers help with problems at home—if students don’t show up for one week, we call the home to get them back, and we pay students a minimum wage to prevent them from dropping out because they need to earn money for their family. Fifty percent of our students continue on to traditional university studies.
The problem is that ProFIS is only a tiny drop in the bucket. We can only admit 120 students per class (about 10% of applicants) but we have thousands who have this need. If this program could be replicated in 100 universities, it could start making a difference. We need advocacy with the university system, the legislature, and large employers. If employers are clamoring for this particular employee profile with a well-rounded education, then our country will make changes. Politicians need to advocate the change. Universities need to replicate. We also need to educate the general population to know that this can exist so that they can demand it. My upcoming book will show how this is possible and trending all over the world. Brazil is out of alignment with this trend and we should make a difference to catch up.
Read more here about the ProFIS model and impact.
Marcelo’s One Good Question: This is hard. My question. Of course I have children, is it possible for them to have a better future ? I am seeing here in Brazil we face immediate threats to global warming. Strong period of economic depresssion. Huge problem in education. Do they have a good future ? Thinking more globally, will they even have any place to go ?
 from BRAZIL – Country Note – Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators