By Thiago Maduro, João Souza, and Caio Santana
Brazilian students have not been able to go to school in person over the last year and a half due to the global coronavirus pandemic. It affected the relationships and connections between teachers and students due to the lack of Internet connectivity and availability of digital education technology. Additionally, an environment of misinformation stemming from the Brazilian government, who adopted measures contrary to science, the World Health Organization, and the country’s own health surveillance agencies, further aggravated the situation. Brazilian people faced an avalanche of misinformation, coupled with an attempt to politicize the pandemic.
Media literacy is an effective tool to combat misinformation. However, it was only introduced into the national curriculum in 2018, which left the country to face the pandemic misinformation with just a few trained teachers, compounded with the difficulties of adapting to a virtual teaching environment. After receiving an Alumni TIES TechCamp small grant, in March 2021, our project team experimented with promoting science popularization activities through science fairs. Through these activities we formulated the following hypothesis: high school students from public schools who participate in STEAM activities should have the analytical skills to learn how to identify pieces of misinformation and encourage others to do the same.
With this hypothesis in mind, we created the STEAM + Media Literacy program — a 35-hour virtual course which took place from August 30 to November 12, 2021. From the 68 high school students selected, 57 completed the course and received a certificate issued by the Federal Institute of Education, Science and Technology of Espírito Santo. The program participants were from all five regions of Brazil, which meant that the project reached 19 of the 27 Brazilian states and 39 cities across the country.
While interacting with the students, we learned about different realities of the pandemic in Brazil. At the end of the course all the students received a kit of materials that would help them develop their projects. When delivering a kit to Joana* (fictitious name), our organizers learned that she was from a humble background and working to supplement the family income while attending school virtually. This was a reality for many Brazilian students during the pandemic.
Joana’s relative also reported that due to the pandemic the family tried to avoid social contact and stayed at home whenever possible. Despite that, they noticed that Joana went out at night to meet other teenagers in places frequented by bad influences, such as drug dealers. It was a relief when she became a STEAM + Media Literacy program participant as she remained at home during the evenings to participate in the synchronous activities instead. Joana attended most of the live sessions and said that the course provided a “very healthy environment for discussions.”
The STEAM + Media Literacy program allowed the project team to maintain personalized communication with the students and encourage them to enjoy the course as much as possible. Like Joana, we found that other students also worked to supplement their family incomes. They claimed they were happy to make contact and interact with incredible lecturers and mentors of the STEAM + Media Literacy course, which was something they lacked with their teachers at school. They were also able to build meaningful relationships with other program participants, aka Steamers.
We believe that this program made a difference in the students’ lives. We educated them on the topic of media literacy and gave them the chance to see new and healthy opportunities on social media in the face of many difficulties they had to overcome during the pandemic. We hope that the interactions developed through the course contributed to students fostering constructive relationships in their environments. These young Brazilians could become important change agents in combating misinformation in the future.
After following the students for three months, listening to them converse with each other, mentors, teachers, and staff, and analyzing the course evaluation forms and mentorship provided for media literacy, we believe that this project opened new paths for young people. They were able to learn about issues they previously weren’t familiar with or did not know how to address. We contributed to the education of these young adults who are now more aware of their duty as citizens, helping them critically analyze information and think for themselves.
STEAM + Media Literacy is funded through an Alumni TIES small grant from the U.S. Department of State.