Fostering Social Inclusion and Multilingualism through Science with Native Scientist

Joana Moscoso, in addition to being a biologist, researcher and scientist, is the co-founder of the Native Scientific project, responsible for bringing science education to the schools of young inmigrants in order to improve their integration in a country they do not know. Thanks to this, Moscoso has become one of the winners of Innovators under 35 in Europe of MIT Technology. Here is her interview.

Joana, tell us how was Native Scientist born and what is the philosophy behind it.

I grew up in small village in the North of Portugal, with no exposure to science, scientists or even higher education institutions. At the age of 12, I learned about bacteria and I became fascinated with them. This meant that from a very early age, I knew I wanted to become a scientist to study the living organisms that are so, so tiny, that we can’t see.

The problem with this was that coming from a village with no access to science, all the responses I got from relatives and friends when I asked about future career were odd, frowned faces. As a teenager with a genuine fascination, this was a bit frustrating and discouraging for me, making me feel weird about my tastes and choices. However, the determination was stronger than those odd looks, so when I eventually moved to London to do a PhD in Bacteriology at the Imperial College, I started volunteering in schools to help breaking the barrier and lack of exposure to science for other children.

At some point during my PhD, as an attempt to meet new people and expand my network, I also helped organising a conference for the Portuguese Association of Researchers and Students in the United Kingdom (PARSUK) and it was the combination of these three experiences, I mean, doing a PhD in London, volunteering in schools and being an active member of PARSUK, that made me realise that lack of exposure to science was actually widely recognised as a barrier for pupils to pursue science or be science savvy.

In addition, online searchers of reports from the European Union and other reputable institutions showed that, compared with non- migrants, migrant pupils are significantly more likely to underachieve in science and math (the rate of underachievement is 40 % for migrant pupils and 16 % for non-migrants). With these facts, the scene was set for me and my co-founder Tatiana Correia (a scientist in the field of physics) to organise school workshops that specifically targeted migrant pupils and aimed at bringing together scientists and pupils of the same cultural background. The idea was to increase pupils’ exposure to science and the hope was that by exposing migrant pupils to scientists who they could relate to because of the shared background, pupils would feel that going to university and/or pursuing a career in science, was a real viable option for them.

Native Scientist aims to promote scientific knowledge, foreign language skills and social integration for migrant communities. How do you concretely achieve that?

Our core activities at Native Scientist are the schools’ workshops where scientists go out of the labs and into schools to talk and demonstrate their work to pupils who speak their mother tongue. Our workshops run in a speed dating format and they are like science tapas, where pupils get to taste different fields of science through the eyes of the four or five researchers that are brought together for each workshop.

How does your team fight against early drop-out from education and training, and unemployment in these communities?

We are providing role models to migrant pupils who are at an increased risk of suffering from educational disadvantage and social exclusion. The programme has not been out there for long enough and with the full resources, to measure the effect in terms of early school dropout or youth unemployment, but the pillars and ethos of the project are to build in pupils a healthy sense of identity, a positive attitude towards speaking more than one language, and a more real understanding of what a scientist is.

What is your current geographical presence?

We are currently operating in six countries (Ireland, UK, France, Netherlands, Germany and Norway) and organising activities in 10 different languages: Arabic, Estonian, French, German, Greek, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish and Turkish.

What has been Native Scientist’s impact in the Portuguese community in the UK? Can you share some testimonials?

To assess the impact of our work, we have been doing observations, interviews and questionnaires. During a workshop, you can typically see children leaning on their tables to hear, touch and see the materials brought to the workshop by the scientists. Their faces show excitement and surprise. Many times, scientists are asked for autographs at the end of the workshop!

There is probably a testimonial that illustrates better the impact that we are having in the Portuguese community. One of the Portuguese teachers that we work with in London said that at the beginning of the project some parents did not want their child to attend the workshop because parents didn’t want them to meet scientists in her after-school class. Three years later, the teacher reported to us that “I now have parents wanting to register their child for the Portuguese classes because they know the scientists are coming.” Regarding the questionnaires, data collected at least 3 months after a workshop shows that 2 in 3 pupils feel prouder of speaking more than one language after the workshop and 58% of the pupils meets a scientist for the first time in their lives.

You also promote several programs such as “Native Books” and “Os Cientistas Explicam”. Can you tell us about the other projects you are carrying out at the moment?

Besides the workshops in schools, which are specially designed for pupils aged 6 – 12 years old, we also run workshops at museums and research institutions for pupils aged 12 – 18. Then we have a bespoke project that we carry out in collaboration or with the support of partner organisations. Native Books is about creating resources that language teachers can use to introduce science in their classes. “Os Cientistas Explicam” was a radio programme where experts in the field answered to questions of children listening to the first children’s radio in Portugal.

Recently you’ve been recognized amongst the 35 innovators under 35 in Europe by MIT. What does this award mean to you and what are the next steps you have in mind?

This award was very important for me because it gives Native Scientist a stamp of innovation and quality, two of the most important values of the project. Our activities actively promote diversity in science and education, and although this may seem a very trivial goal to achieve for some, the truth is that inclusivity and diversity is still debated and not at all a given in many cultures and/or institutions today. The next steps are to carry on and spread the good!

Quality Education is a very strong focus of the Sustainable Development Goals. How do you think Technology can contribute to their achievement?

This is a very broad question. Today technology has shaped our lives more than ever before and it will continue to do so to an extent that it is hard for us to imagine. Having said this, Quality Education for me is achieved through inspiring and resourceful leaders turned into teachers, who are able to adjust to time and have the means to access cutting-edge materials, trustworthy information and diversified training. I think that what I am trying to say here is that Technology is important and revolutionary, but Quality Education is done from people to people and this should never be forgotten.

What advice would you give to any kid out there who is willing to start a STEM career and make a difference?

I would encourage him or her to follow the dream. To be patient, committed and determined. To not let anyone stop them from trying, but to be humble at the same time, always seeking for honest advice and feedback. Finally, to be accountable for his or her own actions and to treat others with respect and curiosity.

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