Soon after graduating with a Bachelors in Chemical Engineering, Lewitt Somarajan discovered that his true passions lay elsewhere. Understanding that engineering was not his calling, Lewitt decided to explore his interest in education, and found work with an education startup in Hyderabad.
After working in Hyderabad, Lewitt was accepted as a Teach For India Fellow in 2011 and placed in an affordable private school (APS) in Pune. Here, Lewitt began to notice a gap that existed particularly in low-cost schools. Because many of these schools were unable to afford certain facilities, namely science labs, there lacked an element of experiential learning, an issue that Lewitt sees as part of a fundamental flaw of the Indian education space.
“The soul of the educational pedagogy followed in schools is still of the colonial times,” said Lewitt. “The result is that schools are institutionalized to create ‘batches’ of students who are streamlined in thoughts and actions to cater to the specific needs of the economy. Times have changed, and so should the way we learn in the classroom… Learning needs to have a ‘whole’ perspective wherein a child takes ownership of his or her own learning rather than constantly being fed what to think. The function of the educators or teachers in the classrooms needs to be that of a catalyst who constantly stimulates the brains of the child to make rational choices based on observation and analysis of it.”
As part of his Teach For India fellowship, Lewitt was responsible for taking up a community project in order to gain a deeper understanding of the practical constraints of educational inequity. He used the opportunity to conceptualize a solution to the pedagogical gap that he observed in his APS in Pune, and came up with LifE lab, an organization designed to transform the way students learn by setting up science labs in government and affordable private schools.
Lewitt took his idea to UnLtd India, a launchpad and incubator for Indian social entrepreneurs. He was selected as an UnLtd Investee, and received funding to turn his idea for LifE lab into a reality. Soon after, Lewitt received support from Hewlett Packard’s Educational Innovation Fund For India (EIFI).
With both UnLtd and EIFI support, LifE lab has piloted science labs in three low-cost schools in Pune and has established one community center, reaching a total of around 400 students till date. Once the infrastructure is established, a group of LifE lab volunteers spends time training both teachers and students on how to use the lab equipment. Teachers are then encouraged to take the model into the classroom, and students are encouraged to teach their friends.
While on the surface LifE lab is an organization focused on infrastructure, in reality the physical infrastructure is not, according to Lewitt, the core of the organization. Its true essence is in fostering independent and creative thinking through experiential learning.
“Life-lab is not just an infrastructural space integrated into schools,” said Lewitt. “We understand the futility of this very well. The biggest challenge is to create an integrated culture of activity based learning by making active experiential learning platforms. Our constant effort is to create mindsets in children and teachers to explore the world of hands-on learning. Once the initial entry barrier is overcome, a sustainable free flowing environment of ‘exploration by doing’ can easily be achieved.”
Just as LifE lab is focused not so much on the infrastructure as on the learning, so too are they concerned less about science as a subject and more about science as a way of looking at the world. Because LifE lab is more focused on the way that students learn and the environment in which they learn, they are not geared exclusively toward students with a bent for the physical sciences, but toward all students, with the ultimate goal of transforming the way they think.
“Everyone is a scientist,” explained Lewitt. “May it be a sweeper, farmer, writer, poet, artist, engineer or doctor – a scientist is one who thinks rationally, asks questions, challenges the conventions and tries to be a solution maker. Life-lab wants to… democratize learning and to develop a scientific attitude in the minds of children to unlearn the conditioning that the system and the society continuously infiltrate into their heads. In a way, it is an unlearning lab – where a continuous process of unlearning, learning and re-learning is encouraged at every step to encourage students to make rational choices in life.”
As an UnLtd Investee, Lewitt said that he could not have turned this idea into a reality without the support of UnLtd India. “Since June, UnLtd has given us very productive support and mentorship,” he noted. “If they hadn’t supported or encouraged us there is no way even the pilot would have been possible. They always acted as a shoulder to lean on, helping us with our proposals, pitching, and of course financial support.”
Currently, UnLtd India is accepting applications for a new round of Investees. They are looking for social entrepreneurs from Mumbai, Thane, Pune, Solapur, Raigarh Satara or Ahmadnagar interested in receiving funding and incubation support for their idea or existing project. Individuals selected for the incubation will receive startup funding, business support in areas such as financial planning, fundraising, legal structures, and governance, as well as connection to a network of peers, leaders, and experts. The application deadline is Monday, April 15th.