The science of teasing and teaching young rural India

Everyday at sundown,a van the size of an ambulance has been rolling into villages on the fringes of Bangalore.

Written by Johnson T A | Bangalore | Published: June 8, 2012 1:01 am

Everyday at sundown,a van the size of an ambulance has been rolling into villages on the fringes of Bangalore. Like performers in a travelling circus,its occupants unveil an hour-long show that holds children and adults in rapt attention.

The van is not peddling magic or stunts but promoting science through experiments. It is among 62 mobile science labs deployed across nine states in an effort to stimulate curiosity and scientific thinking among children in rural India,the result of a now 14-year-old initiative by a former investment banker.

The efforts of Ramji Raghavan and his Agastya International Foundation are now showing results at the annual fairs called the Initiative for Research and Innovation in Science. Over the last four years,rural students mentored by Agastya have featured regularly among the prizewinners,2011 being a standout year with five students from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh winning special awards. And 11 of 16 projects submitted by Agastya trainees were among the final 103 showcased at IRIS,including a prizewinning one on “growing oxygen on highways” by Bhargavi Savurla and Jyotsna Thirupathi,Class VIII students at an Andhra Pradesh government school for the underprivileged.

To promote interest,the foundation combines indigenous models,the touring labs,rural science centres that train science teachers and instructors,exhibitions and fairs. Its efforts have been noted by the National Knowledge Commission but its biggest uptake has been from the government of Karnataka,which has now co-opted the Agastya International Foundation for science teaching in parts of the state.

“We came up with this model about 10-12 years ago and if we can take this and diffuse it into the education system on a mass level,then you can create grassroots transformation on a scale that has never been done before. Our mission is to spark curiosity and creativity,” says Raghavan.

Raghavan describes it as a hub-and-spoke model where science centres are located in district capitals and where mobile science centres flit between these centres and rural schools,creating local science instructors along the way.

“We have 62 mobile science labs operating in nine states,touching nearly one million children a year. This is the largest hands-on,curiosity-driven,mobile science education programme,I believe,in terms of face-to-face reach in the world,outside of the government,” says Raghavan. The organisation has nearly 450 members.

It has been borrowing expertise from the Indian Institute of Science,IITs and even foreign institutions to create experiments. Several IT companies around Bangalore have contributed vans. Former President A P J Kalam recently donated Rs 25 lakh from prize money he had received to sponsor mobile labs for Bihar. And stock market investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala in 2007 committed to giving Rs 5 crore a year for 10 years.

“The normal paradigm is basic access to education for the poor and high-end learning for the rich. What we came up with is high-end creative learning for the poor,” says Raghavan.

Under an MoU with Karnataka this year,Agastya will,under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan scheme,build a state science resource centre,an integrated mega science centre in Hubli and science activity centres in four other districts.

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