Débora Garofalo overcame a challenging childhood of poverty and prejudice to train as a teacher. She first worked in Human Resources in the banking industry to raise the money to undertake teacher training. This gave her great insight into the skills students need to succeed in the modern workplace.
When she arrived at her school on the outskirts of São Paulo, and near four of the country’s notorious favelas, Garofalo realised that the students were not receiving an education in technology that would equip them to thrive in the world of work. However, the school was under-resourced, and the children were suffering from the impact of their local environment, which was blighted by violence, insanitary conditions and poverty.
Garofalo decided to take inspiration from what she saw around her. She worked with her students to map the problems of the local area through photography. She used this information to develop the Junk Robotics, Promoting Sustainability programme. To launch it, she first had to do build her colleagues’ confidence about working with technology.
She also held open classes on waste management for the local community, and encouraged people to bring in items that would otherwise be thrown away. Garofalo teaches the creativity of “maker” culture to encourage the students to turn this waste into prototypes of things they have imagined, designed and then built.
The students began with simple projects, and over time, Garofalo has introduced the fundamentals of electronics, and then moved on to more complex robotics, for example using controllable chips. Over 2000 students have been involved in the programme, and have created prototypes of everything from robots and carts, to boats and planes. More than 700kg of rubbish has been turned into something new.
The impact on the students has been striking. They have developed their skills of collaborative and interdisciplinary working, and deepened their understanding of electronics and physics. They are learning about being global citizens, and impacting their local community by removing the rubbish and recycling it. Exam results among the participating students have increased from 4.2 to 5.2, while at least 28 students have remained in school when they were at risk of dropping out.
Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of Junk Robotics, Promoting Sustainability is to change what the school is known for. Now violence is only one element. It also has a reputation for excellence in programming and robotics, and for contributing to the improvement of the local environment and global issues like sustainability.
The programme has not only been expanded within the school. São Paulo municipal schools have used it as the basis for implementing a new technology curriculum, including the teaching of Programming and Robotics.
Garofalo is generous with her learning. She curates São Paulo Tech week, where she trains other teaches in Junk Robotics. She has regular columns in three national education publications to share practical ideas and techniques. In addition, the work has been influential in the development of guidelines for teaching technology across the country.