Campus Life a misti summer

Looking back and moving forward

Reflections on a summer in the Brazilian education system

The room lacked character. A single barred window, which overlooked the students’ courtyard, was the only thing interrupting the bare dominion of bleach-white walls. Several tables huddled together at the center of the room, each sporting materials for the workshop that was about to take place. On the door, a small SEEDUC (Secretaria de Estado de Educação) insignia hung above a laminated sign that read “Formação STEM Brasil” (STEM Brazil Formation).

The office of the Secretary of Education in Rio de Janeiro hosted a series of workshops for public school teachers last July. The workshops introduced them to new activities and experiments that could be implemented in the classroom. As an intern for World Fund STEM Brazil through an MIT-Brazil program fellowship, I was tasked with incorporating coding into these activities, as well as with finding a way to introduce the subject to teachers without inducing terror and confusion.

One by one, the teachers slowly trudged into the barren room on the day of the workshop. Twelve were expected. Four showed up, each noticeably burdened by the crippling weight of their apprehensions and hopelessness. Bruno, the leader of the workshop, hoped that traditional Brazilian tardiness was at fault for the lack of attendance, yet his intuition told him otherwise. Nevertheless, it began.

An overview of the program preceded hands-on activities in which the teachers completed experiments based on the subjects that they taught. Hopefully, they would then incorporate the activities into their daily curriculums. Two chemistry teachers were hunched over in one corner, mixing murky solutions as a flask filled with purple liquid boiled behind them. A physics and a math teacher were at the other end of the room fashioning a seismograph out of gelatin and popsicle sticks. Smiles slowly began to creep onto their faces, as if they were becoming reacquainted with a long-lost friend. It had been a while since education was fun.

In Rio de Janeiro, schools are epicenters of change and microcosms of a nationwide political dilemma. During our lunch break, as we indulged in the customary meal of fried chicken over a mound of rice and beans, teachers began to recount their tales from the educational front. There were stories of misbehaving children, misunderstood lessons, and misappropriated funds.

One of the teachers, an aged woman with a pair of black pointed glasses that rested precariously on the edge of her nose, sat forlornly at the end of the table. She shielded her brow while her thumb meticulously prodded the web of wrinkles around her temple, as if she were manually searching her mind for some piece of knowledge that she stored long ago and desperately needed now. Hesitantly, she leaned forward and entered the lunchtime debate, visibly upset by the anecdotes she was hearing. As she spoke, her voice slowly began to climb with a crescendo of desperation; her face clenched and rosy pools of anger accumulated in her cheeks.

As my Portuguese was failing me, I struggled to catch every word she said, but the theme was clear: conflict. Listening intently, I desperately tried to piece together the words I understood as though solving a verbal puzzle: “Computers… occupy movement… government… broken.” Her cries flooded the room, drowning out the conversations of those around us with a fiery poignancy.

As she spoke, dozens of schools across the region were being occupied by students demanding educational reform. Young high schoolers, fed up with the country’s lack of funding and dismal infrastructure, took over their schools and sought to enact change. Some chose to build by fixing their bathrooms and repainting the walls in an attempt to salvage some hope for a proper education. Others chose to destroy, wrecking classrooms and ravaging outdated and underfunded laboratories, refusing to tolerate anything less than what they deserve.

Meanwhile, the very teachers that worked in these schools were on strike, demanding better wages and more support from the government. Since the workshop took place over winter break, the discussion was riddled with uncertainty as to what would happen once school was in session. Could the teachers go back if the students were still occupying schools? Were the teachers and the students on the same side?

Having the opportunity to work with the educational system in Brazil, at such a transformational time in the country’s history, gave me valuable insight into the importance of education and what it can mean for an individual in need. Within the powerful words of one teacher, I saw a challenging duality: Brazil, a nation in transition, was desperately trying to look toward a better future without abandoning the present.

There exists a frantic effort to salvage the remains of a system that breeds corruption and political fallout rather than engineers and mathematicians. There was the comical irony of an MIT student attempting to incorporate computer programming into schools that lacked functioning computers. There were teachers responsible for seventy students at a time, attempting to hand craft a future for each. However, through these murky and uncertain circumstances, a prevailing hope remained. The anger in the teachers’ words was not born from defeat, but rather from passion and a willingness to give the next generation more.

Lunch finished, and we walked back to the SEEDUC building to continue the activities. We walked together: four teachers, two MIT students, and an educator, all from very different paths, yet each with a role to play in the struggle for educational reform.

MISTI — MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives — is MIT’s pioneering international education program. Each year nearly 1,000 MIT undergrads and graduate students are matched with hands-on international projects through MISTI. To learn more about internship, teaching and research opportunities across the globe, check out