Rebuilding Puerto Rico May Help Improve Science Education

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30 January, 2018

Many people in Puerto Rico, a United States territory, are still suffering the effects of two powerful hurricanes that hit the island last year.

Hurricane Irma struck in early September, followed shortly thereafter by Hurricane Maria. The back-to-back storms left at least 64 people dead and caused widespread destruction.

Officials in Puerto Rico estimate the storms caused up to $95 billion in damage. Electricity was knocked out across the island. About 45 percent of power customers remain in the dark. Water and sewer systems were also badly damaged, causing shortages of drinking water and increasing risks of disease.

Even before the latest hurricanes, Puerto Rico struggled for years with a major recession and financial problems. Much of the U.S. territory's infrastructure has long needed repairs. As efforts to rebuild from the storms continue, some organizations believe the disaster recovery operation can lead to some positive changes.

A historic chance to improve education

One such organization is Ciencia Puerto Rico. The group describes itself as a "global community of scientists, students, educators and allies." Specifically, Ciencia has been working for more than 10 years to expand and improve science education in Puerto Rico.

The group says Puerto Rico's science education system was failing long before the hurricanes hit. The territory's Department of Education reported that in 2016, only 40 percent of 8th grade public school students were considered proficient in science.

Internationally, Puerto Rico schoolchildren are among the 10 worst performers on science tests. Ciencia says an estimated 98 percent of students are not able to use basic scientific knowledge to process data and handle complex problems. Students have also shown low performance levels in mathematics.

Mónica Feliú-Mójer is the director of communications and science outreach for Ciencia Puerto Rico. She says the lack of science education in Puerto Rico goes back many years.

"I was born and raised in Puerto Rico and I remember growing up, I didn't know that science was done. I didn't know any Puerto Rican scientists. I never saw them in the media. So from the beginning of the organization, we set out to change that."She added that while some students do show an interest in science and may want to learn more, most ignore these feelings. Students do not relate science to their daily lives and also do not see the studies as a realistic path to a future job, she said. But her organization is seeking to change that.

"Science does belong in Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans do belong in science. And something that's always been really important for us is to make science relevant to the culture."

The organization sees the current situation as a historic chance to establish an educational connection between science and disasters.

"There's so many big issues where science could play a role. From the environment, to rebuilding, to economic development, science can be a key element for the recovery and for the rebuilding in Puerto Rico."

Over the next year, Ciencia plans to help connect scientists with community leaders and educators to find the best ways to teach disaster-related subjects.

"We want these projects to be led by the students for their communities. So that the students can say, alright, here I am learning about water and water systems. How can I come up with a solution that's actually going to impact my community, which maybe has not had access to potable water for three months."

Lessons will also be developed about other disaster-related issues linked to the environment. Feliú-Mójer added that using hands-on methods – instead of students just memorizing scientific facts - will cause more students to become interested in science.

She says most schools have now reopened across Puerto Rico. But many are still operating without power and other basic necessities. This has made the learning process more difficult for students – many of whom also face the same conditions at home.

One of the immediate goals has been to do as much as possible to allow schoolchildren to keep learning despite the difficult conditions. Moving forward, Ciencia believes the disaster can help launch a nationwide rebuilding of science education.

While the group's main goal is to provide better overall science education, Feliú-Mójer says the process will also provide students other valuable life skills.

"It's not just about, can we get more Puerto Rican kids interested in science. But really, it's about empowering people with the critical thinking that science can give you."

I'm Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn reported this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

sewer n. pipes buried underground that carry water and waste

infrastructure n. the roads, structures and public services that are needed for a city of area to operate properly

proficient adj. very good at something

relevant adj. relating to something in a useful way

impact v. affect something in a powerful way

potable adj. safe to drink

access n. ability to use or get something

empower v. give power to

critical adj. using or involving careful judgment about the good and bad parts of something