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South American STEM

South American STEM

When people think of Colombia, they often picture a crime-ridden country laid low by drug cartels.  But this impression is out of date.  Aggressive efforts by the Colombian government, bolstered by support from the U.S. and Europe, have greatly reduced the malaise caused by the drug trade.

The Colombia Instituto de Astrobiología – affiliated with the NASA Astrobiology Institute – had requested a visit by someone to speak to various groups in Bogota, which I did at the end of February.  This tour was arranged by Jorge Bueno, the director of the Instituto, and I was shepherded in my day-to-day activities by Carolina Bruhl.

Bogota – like other metropoli in South America – is high in the Andes (8,700 feet), and is not subject to the debilitating heat and humidity of the country’s lowlands.  Bogota’s not a small place, either – the population is 7 million, comparable to that of the cities of Los Angeles and Chicago combined.  Lamentably, Colombia largely shut down its railways in the late 1990s, spending money on highways instead.  The latter are now thoroughly, and interminably, clogged with cars, trucks and motorbikes, and even a trip of 10 miles can take more than an hour.

Despite this, Bogota leaves a wonderful impression thanks to its exceptionally gracious and friendly residents.  I gave about a half-dozen presentations during the three days I was there: A colloquium at the National University, and talks at STEM K12 schools in the city’s suburbs.  As the accompanying photos show, while Colombia may not be a very wealthy country, it invests in its schools. The kids all wear uniforms (even in public schools), which blurs any class distinctions, and are incredibly bright, well behaved, and more enthusiastic than the fans at a Justin Bieber concert.

Colombia is looking towards its future, and clearly understands the importance of teaching the STEM disciplines.

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