In a world where the wonders of science are no further away than a Google search or a science museum field trip, it is easy to forget that many communities still find themselves on the fringes of science. This is especially true in rural heartlands as it is the case of Armamar or Resende, in Portugal, where access to science is a distant dream for many. Nestled in the Douro region, from the depths of Portugal’s interior, these communities face unique challenges, from dwindling populations to the burdens of an aging demographic.
For residents of Armamar and Resende, the thirst for knowledge often goes unquenched and lacks the hues of scientific exploration. In an age where the science capital is of importance, these rural communities stay in the shadows, and science remains tantalizingly out of reach. The consequences ripple through the educational journeys of their youth and last on adult lives, limiting the community’s ability to incorporate science into their daily life to solve real-world problems. These unique regional characteristics posed a compelling challenge and, at the same time, an exceptionally significant opportunity.
Today, Raquel Branquinho, University of Porto-FLUP and Gomes Teixeira Science Academy (GOMA), Xana Sá Pinto, CIDTFF, Dep – University of Aveiro and Susana Ambrósio, CIDTFF – University of Aveiro, bring a different story, a cornerstone that brought together researchers, educators, students, local partners and the community. This is the tale of how the European Researchers’ Night (ERN), a European-wide celebration of science, that spanned 26 countries on September 29th, 2023, defied tradition from thriving in urban landscapes and brought the excitement of scientific exploration to the rural villages of Armamar and Resende. This is the story of how science found its roots in these rural communities, turning almost barren landscapes into gardens of learning and empowerment. While Raquel and Xana’s academic paths may have led them to bustling urban environments, their unwavering connection to their hometowns made them acutely aware of the unique challenges faced by these communities.
Fueled by a shared passion for leveling the playing field of science engagement, they forged alliances with local partners, including the Municipalities of Armamar and Resende, the school clusters of Resende and of Gomes Teixeira in Armamar, GOMA in Armamar, Os Afonsinhos (Youth Football Academia) in Resende, and national partners like the ERN Consortium of the University of Coimbra. Together, they shaped a vision and gave birth to an extraordinary event, the European Researchers’ Night decentralized, which would resonate and make privileged the rural settings of Armamar and Resende.
More than 250 participants, spanning generations, gathered to celebrate science in Centro Interpretativo da Mulher Duriense [Douro Women’s Interpretive Center] in Armamar and Museu Municipal de Resende and Jardim 25 de Abrilin Resende. Over 35 researchers, many natives of these communities, led outreach and interactive activities open to everyone. The researchers also have the opportunity to hone their science communication skills through a previous Science Communication Workshop explicitly designed for the event, in order to make complex concepts accessible to non-specialist audiences.
One of the most remarkable moments was the synergy between over 55 students from the two school clusters and the scientists. Through the “Adopt a Scientist” initiative, students were given the opportunity to interact with scientists, deepening their interest in various science fields and actively participating as volunteers in organizing the ERN. This initiative showcased the students’ commitment to science and dedication to making the event successful.
But what is the true impact of these events on the communities of Armamar and Resende? Given the scale of the event, the evaluation process was primarily carried out in Armamar and the results were extremely positive. The majority of participants reported an increase in their: i) desire to learn more about science (98%), ii) realization that their communities were home to many scientists (89%), iii) understanding of how science could address local issues (93%), and iv) eagerness to collaborate with scientists as active citizens (97%). Moreover, while assessing what scientists and student volunteers have learned from this experience is still ongoing, we see these activities as opportunities for lifelong learning, extending beyond the classroom into the heart of these communities.
In the end, as the European Researchers’ Night ended in Armamar and Resende, science had scored a victory of equal access, opportunities, and inspiration for all who embraced it, setting forth a path toward community involvement and sustainable development in these rural regions. This journey has demonstrated that science knows no bounds and that, with determination and collaboration, it can flourish even in the most unlikely places. It is a testimonial to the power of community engagement and science’s role in shaping a brighter future for all, regardless of where we call home.
Raquel Branquinho is a researcher at the University of Porto – FLUP, Portugal. She is also a co-founder and member of the coordination team of GOMA. She was the local coordinator for the European Researchers’ Night in Armamar 2023.
Xana Sá Pinto is a researcher at the Center for Research in Didactics and Technology in Teacher Education at the Department of Education and Psychology (DEP) at the University of Aveiro, Portugal. She is also the coordinator and co-founder of the EvoKE network. She was the local coordinator for the European Researchers’ Night in Resende 2023.
Susana Ambrósio is a researcher in Science Communication at the Center for Research in Didactics and Technology at the University of Aveiro, Portugal.