Spreading science in India’s villages

August 14th, 2008 - 7:21 am ICT by IANS  

By Roshin Varghese

Twelve-year-old Sujatha sits riveted under a tree in a village in India’s southern state of Andhra Pradesh as a teacher explains the complex concept of refraction to her and a gaggle of equally enthralled children with the help of a simple, everyday prop like a rolled up newspaper. Like her classmates she is disappointed when the 45-minute lesson on this somewhat esoteric concept in physics ends.

“It’s fun,” says Sujatha simply, already looking forward to the class next week in Kuppam, about 250 km from India’s IT hub of Bangalore.

The simple statement from the farmer’s daughter is just the certificate that the Agastya International Foundation is looking for as it goes about the task of popularising science in India’s vast hinterland.

India, which has emerged as a global IT power, is a country that regards science as a powerful instrument of growth and development. According to a recent study quoted by the ministry of science and technology, among the 149 top-performing countries in all fields, India ranked 13 for citations and 21 for research papers.

As scientific temperament is carefully nurtured in the country, groups like Agastya play a vital role in helping the government in the task.

Agastya’s mobile science laboratories crisscross the dirt roads and highways of the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, triggering curiosity and the itch to learn in over two million rural schoolchildren.

Some 30 minibuses equipped with folding tables, projection screens and experimental models christened the ‘Mobile Lab’ by the Agastya team travel hundreds of kilometres each week across the three states, teaching science to the children of farmers, contract labourers and quarry workers.

Erecting their many props under trees, in dilapidated school buildings or simply in the open during good weather, these classes have increasingly attracted not only children but also their illiterate parents, conscious of their ignorance and keen to learn more.

Specially designed equipment and imported teaching aids are housed in three separate science labs at the Agastya campus in Kuppam where some 500,000 children from neighbouring government schools are annually bussed in to a fascinating, almost magical world where liquids change colour, smoke emanates from thin air and objects mysteriously levitate.

Agastya’s unconventional teaching methods, outside the ambit of government-run schools, have been recognised by the National Knowledge Commission for changing attitudes to science subjects which most children find intimidating.

“Our hands on approach by specially trained and somewhat unconventional teachers that reduces dependence on pedestrian and uninspiring textbooks are primary attractions,” says Agastya chairperson Ramji Raghavan.

The scalability and ability to be replicated are major strengths, declares the graduate of the London Business School who after 20 years of a finance career in the US and Britain founded Agastya nine years ago - using his considerable fund raising skills.

“We are adding value to the country. This is not a hobby,” he says firmly, doing his bit for the country that has emerged as a top IT power and one where science is regarded as a powerful instrument of growth and development.

After all, the Indian reality is a rural landscape where infrastructure facilities are minimal and finances scarce, where primary and secondary students remain dependent on prescribed texts to learn physics concepts like refraction and optics or phenomena like plant germination and photosynthesis.

This linear and dreary approach not only kills enthusiasm but also deprives an entire generation of essential knowledge and understanding of concepts largely related to everyday living.

It is this shortcoming that Agastya seeks to overcome. With its dedicated and qualified pool of educators and innovators, Agastya has developed over 120 enjoyable models to both explain and demonstrate varied scientific principles.

A peep into a typical biology class for 10-year-olds by Agastya students is illustrative.

Each child is blindfolded and given a tumbler full of water to taste to distinguish between plain, salty and sweet liquid.

On the face of it seems an unnecessary, almost stupid experiment. But the excited giggles that begin with the blindfolding and continue as the child licks the tip of the liquid-filled glass are just the tip of the learning curve, activating the link between the brain and the senses.

The physics class that follows is similarly innovative and thought provoking. A rolled up newspaper simulates a makeshift telescope explaining the concept of refraction whilst a ‘jerry rigged’ shoebox demonstrates the workings of a camera.

Heating a simple bottle-cap makes clear the multifaceted concept of expansion and contraction, normally explained tediously by indifferent teachers from badly printed textbooks, robbing the learning of science of all spontaneity.

“When these children first start attending our classes they are shy and reticent. But within a couple of sessions they become engrossed, participatory and questioning,” says instructor Chaaya Devi.

For the children, the shift in focus from rote-based learning to critical and independent thinking generates an attitudinal change that soon becomes apparent, she adds.

Many children inspired by these classes often end up making their own models by recycling rags, plastic bags and pieces of glass and wood.

As encouragement, Agastya buys the more innovative creations for a token amount, engendering fierce competition and originality.

“All these children have picked up some textbook knowledge in science and when those same concepts are entertainingly demonstrated, they are fascinated. It helps them absorb things better,” says former physics professor D.R. Baluragi, who covers over 500 km every month teaching the rudiments of science.

Earlier this year, Agastya inaugurated a discovery based learning museum modelled on the Exploratorium in San Francisco with large-scale models open to public.

“Many of these first generation learners will not follow their parents into menial employment but hopefully improve themselves,” says Manjula Rao, Agastya’s education programme head.

“Our modest efforts are aimed at making this change.”

A change that is already being seen in children like Sujatha, and her eagerness to learn more.

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