New funds for Puerto Rican scientists after natural disasters

Project set up between scientists and schools could help reverse the effects of a brain drain on the region in the long term

March 26, 2018
Puerto Rico after the storm
Source: Getty

Scientists in Puerto Rico have secured grant funding from the US National Science Foundation to teach students to develop their own scientific solutions to the challenges created by natural disasters affecting the region.

Category four hurricanes Irma and Maria caused loss of life and mass devastation to the cost of several million dollars in Puerto Rico and neighbouring islands in September 2017.

Tens of thousands of inhabitants as well as visiting academics and scholars are said to have fled the Caribbean region as a result, prompting fears that lost skills, teachers and research will fuel an impending brain drain, according to sector leaders.

But efforts are being made to rebuild the country’s research and education system. Volunteers from the non-profit science resource network Ciencia Puerto Rico – a group of scientists collaborating with Yale University – aim to train 40 local middle school teachers and principals to implement a series of project-based learning science lessons relevant to Puerto Rican culture.

In turn, students will be taught to identify how science can be used to address the pressing needs of their community after a disaster – such as availability of drinking water and changes to terrestrial ecosystems.

About $190,000 (£135,650) has been awarded from the NSF for the first year of the project – one of 23 grants distributed by the federal agency to initiate research in Puerto Rico relating to the natural disasters.

Giovanna Guerrero-Medina, executive director of Ciencia Puerto Rico and a researcher at Yale University, said that the project would help drive students to become “critical thinkers and problem-solvers”, which could in turn help schools and communities be better prepared against future natural disasters.

“This type of empowerment and creativity was critical for many communities that had to find solutions in the months that aid did not come and could help Puerto Rico be more entrepreneurial and resilient,” she told Times Higher Education.

In the longer term, such collaborative projects between scientists and students could even help reverse the effects of a brain drain, Dr Guerrero-Medina added.

“CienciaPR will be leveraging its community of more than 8,500 scientists, students and educators to help continue to transform science education so that it is more meaningful and culturally relevant,” she said.

“This is one way in which online communities and geographically dispersed networks can mitigate brain drain, by promoting exchanges and contributions, even while some of their members might be far away.” 

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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