Academics who attended the recent Indian Science Congress wholeheartedly agreed that the standard of science education across India is appalling. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. In 2008, the National Knowledge Commission recommended that attracting and retaining talented students in basic sciences is paramount to any fighting chance with China, South Korea and the likes.
One organization took up this challenge a decade sooner. Using low-cost, hands-on models, Agastya introduces rural Indian children to the fundamentals of science and math. As a trust based in Bangalore, it inspires children to explore the world through science centers, fairs and mobile labs. The last one solved the reach problem through minivan-based mobile labs, operated by trained drivers who double as experts in demonstrating basic science concepts using the models. Dubbed “Science on Wheels” and based on scientific themes around physics, chemistry, ecology and math, the mobile labs travel from district to district taking mini science museums directly to rural schools. Most of the models and experiments are designed with readily available day to day materials such as scrap paper, ropes, rubber bands, buttons, bicycle tubes, tennis balls, soda bottles and such. Anyone who grew up in India knows you can find these if you scout a street or two. The idea is not just about cost but to make the children embrace the simplicity of scientific inquiry and to encourage recreating them when at home.
Agastya’s founder, Ramji Raghavan, is also an ambassador for its cause. He went through soul-searching journey across the globe with a vague aspiration to “start a school in the foothills of Himalayas teaching children to be creative leaders.” After tossing the idea around with friends and mentors, Ramji arrived at the premise for Agastya. “A hands-on science education program that sparks curiosity, instills creative thinking and encourages questioning.” The idea seemed more practical and effective than an isolated school in the Himalayas and if done right, he knew it could be scaled to reach every child across the world. His previous success in corporate America gave him access to distinguished scientists and senior executives, and their check books too. Agastya now operates with over 200 staff members – a mix of field trainers, science center operators and administrators.
They acquired a sprawling campus in the rural Andhra Pradesh (in Kuppam) that is acting as a model science center and a test bed for ecological reengineering. Once a barren land with no life, the area is now thriving with bio and eco diversity, thanks to retired environmentalist A N Yellappa Reddy, who volunteered to put his life-long experience to purposeful use. The campus also houses a Discovery Center, one of the few formal science museums in India, with hundreds of low-cost experiments and several large-scale exhibits. A cursory check on the web indicates there are over 200 science museums in the US. Agastya and few other science centers in India have only just tipped the trend. Indeed, lot more is needed to nurture the creative spirit of every Indian child.
We all know school dropouts are just as smart and intelligent as anyone else, and Agastya puts the idea to test by training school drops to be, yes, teachers. Says Ramji, “If you trust people and provide appropriate training, they will deliver. Our first mobile lab instructor used to drive a tractor but today, he is one of our best trainers and manages a large group of mobile instructors too.” And guess what? In one of the videos he is using a model made with ropes, balloons and pumps to explaining how space shuttles work. Where there is a will, even rocket science is not that complicated.
Ramji points me to the research that says we learn 80% of what we experience and 95% of what we teach. All other forms of learning are less efficient. “So we identify and train students to be young instructors themselves, within their communities.” Agastya wants to inspire the learner and the teacher within everyone and not only that “A child’s learning enhances when interacting with a peer as opposed to a ‘teacher’.” To their credit, two of their young instructors won a special award at IRIS 2008 – ‘Initiative for Research & Innovation in Science’ a program sponsored by Intel along with the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).
It’s only fair that Agastya stands out in its endeavor and is getting attention from United Way, Clinton Global Initiative, MIT and Ashoka. During the launch of its Hubli-Dharwad chapter, leaders of United Way India visited Agastya to explore partnership opportunities. Ramji was also elected as Senior Ashoka Fellow in 2009, setting the stage for Ashoka Youth Ventures to collaborate with Agastya. This month, the India Initiatives at the MIT Media Lab is hosting a competition for MIT students to devise low-cost science experiments that Agastya can then incorporate in its India operations. Its model has proved scalable and proof of it is Indian Knowledge Commission’s recommendation to the Prime Minister to replicate Agastya’s program to all of India. Ramji has even reached out to the United Nations with a proposal to take it across the globe. When asked why he would target just rural disadvantaged children, he says, “That’s where we started because I saw rural children had no opportunities to spark their curiosity and so any chances of scientific understanding was next to nothing, but the model is replicable wherever the appetite is.”
As the largest hands-on science education program in the world, Agastya exposes science to about 1.5 million children (50% girls) annually through its 31 mobile labs and 14 dedicated science centers. However, the team is shooting for a goal of reaching 50 million children by 2020. That’s audacious given India has roughly 200 million 6-14 year olds hungry for learning. One of India’s systemic problems is lack of creativity, problem-solving and risk-taking among children. Agastya is attacking it in a realistic way and in my brief chat with Ramji, I promised to help all I can to scale them up, will you?