science in India's villages
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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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